“American Boy”, Estelle’s collaboration with smooth-jiving hipster braggadocio Kanye West, is an essential piece of ebullient summer musical manna rained down from empyreal heights and granted to us passive listeners as one final gift before the world spirals off into an inescapable vortex of cyclones, earthquakes, economic collapse, and a doom-sealing Presidential race.
It’s a song as breezy as air, so carefree its gorgeously channeled vocals practically float off from the grounded four-on-the-floor disco beat and Quincy-Jones-producing-Michael-Jackson funk bass. It’s a pure pop gem with a joyful bounce, verdant in textures (particularly the sunglassed analogue synth stabs), contagiously catchy, danceable and singable, and lyrically devoid of depth or scope, like an aimlessly pleasant walk in the park.
The song is essentially a recycled take on “Impatient” by the track’s producer, will.i.am, a song which featured no vocals save for an unconvincing attempt at making the laidback ethereal groove sound even more restless than Nu Shooz by looping a vocoded “I Can’t Wait” ad nauseum. Estelle and Kanye’s vocals perform reconstructive surgery without even taking out the scalpel. The key word is restraint. Kanye idles cool, casually slinging about British colloquialisms, while Estelle reverses the vernacular Anglo-West Indies accent found on the hip-hop of her last release, The 18th Day, to connect with her inner soul chanteuse.
“American Boy” is about the thrill of new experience, the excitement of a being in a fresh, unexplored environment while simultaneously meeting someone new. Estelle greets both with a starry-eyed fondness and wonder of gaze rather than an infatuated longing. It’s a song of living in the moment, rather than preparing for the future or dwelling on the past, as she does throughout the rest of Shine. Even as the bridge sucks in the high end to a dulcet line of rhetoricals, asking “Would you be my love? / Could you be my love?”, it’s almost as if the question is posed reluctantly. It’s like she’s thinking, “If life can continue as easygoing as this, I might even fall in love with this silly kid.” Instead of falling head over heels, she refuses to even look for a man. She’d rather grab a boy — someone who can take her to Broadway, his hood, shopping, and out to a café.
If Estelle seems giddy, it’s because she recently relocated stateside, signed as the first and thus far only act on John Legend’s Home School imprint, and assembled a gaggle of the industry’s finest to put together her latest LP, Shine, which is pretty great save for a few missteps. Ironically, not long after she got off the plane, “American Boy” rocketed to number one on the charts in her recently expatriated UK and rounded out the top 10 throughout the world in just about every place but the US. Call those of us over here in America slow on the uptake, or perhaps too obsessed with self-replicating homogeny, to notice.
You see, American R&B has had a lingering obsession with the hierarchical imperative of the voice since Mariah Carey started unloading larynx acrobatics on us over 15 years ago. The culmination of this craze has been the Fox TV show American Idol, which has done perhaps more damage to both music and the industry that coddles it than file sharing ever could. As a free alternative broadcast to millions of viewers daily, American Idol relished the voice as the sole purposeful dominating force in modern music, making all arrangements, including the downright shitty ones performed by the Idol house band, subsumed within a singer’s ability to add countless layers of worthless histrionic embellishment to popular song. My fiancée and I call it the “Pick a Note Syndrome”.
Though she transforms her preferred vocal delivery from a rough street-slang dialect to full-on harmonizing on her new album, Estelle fortunately avoids this condition on most of Shine, though her all-star production staff (Mark Ronson, will.i.am, Swizz Beats, Wyclef Jean) occasionally allows her split personality layering and superstar guests to crisscross, clutter, and exhaust the mix, particularly on “In the Rain”.
Estelle doesn’t have to force the soul out of her to shine like her pick-a-note peers. She possesses it readily and spins it out effortlessly, sometimes surprisingly, as she alternates between genre styles intermittently throughout the album. When she does make the jump from a mellifluous songbird back to a rhythmic rhyming ragga-muffin, she sounds like two different people. “Now boys are chatting about me with my wicked accent”, she self-assuredly says on “Shine”. On this LP, it’s just another duet, Estelle UK vs. Estelle USA.
Part of that rocky yet alluring conversational tone stems from Estelle’s rags-to-riches story, having been raised in an impoverished house to a Senegalese mother and a Caribbean father who banned secular music from their household. This manifests itself sporadically throughout the album, such as on the Ronson-produced dancehall cut “Magnificent”, which finds Estelle instructing her man to “Step your game up / This is what I call a wake up”. For Estelle, mediocrity and sloth are prison walls around your slum when you come from nothing. Perseverance and effort have made her, and she expects the same from a lover.
“You ain’t gonna be the one to tell me how much I’m worth / ‘Cause I pulled myself up and out from under the dirt / You have to believe me / What I got don’t come easy”. She rides these caveats out along a smooth island sway, as if seated on a perch untenable to herself growing up. She recognizes her new found luxury for what it is, provisional, and this vulnerability leads her to “fight to stay strong”, as she remarks on “Shine”. Sadly, the album’s title track is ironically one of the album’s only songs to abandon neo-soul for conventional and lackluster hip-hop. And that makes it one of the weaker tracks, opposing all the lyrics imply.
Her roots may also help explain some of Shine‘s questionable grammar. The pairing with John Legend, “You Are”, is a sweet-to-semi-saccharine love ballad that tries to get odd traction out of the word “do”. “Come close to me / Only your love can do me / Every little thing you do / You are”, Estelle and Legend duet. Taken literally, the second half of the verse could be a theoretical construction of the significant other as an amalgamation of their actions, a suggestion to be good because you are your good deeds. Taken in context though, it sounds like a goof.
Worse is the chorus of “So Much Out the Way”, which inexplicably refrains a line that would make any grammarian’s head spin: “They got so much things to say right now”. Not even purposed on a slant rhyme or a turn of phrase, it sounds like a willful dis on “propa” speech.
Yet many of the lyrical lines do sound as if they were written on the fly. Truth be told, in a pop context, the content of Estelle’s familiar cathexis — love lost, love unrequited, love unreciprocated, love discovered, and love fulfilled — is far less interesting than her delivery, which blends the past and present together masterfully.
Several songs do acheive interest for reversing the expectations of their source material. “Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)”, will.i.am’s other song on the album and a good candidate for its best second-tier single (along with the upbeat, Jackson Five-esque “Pretty Please (Love Me)”), samples an extremely truncated snippet of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” in a rhythmic capacity and spends the remaining three and a half minutes refusing to be hexed by a lover’s spells, charms, and pleas for casual sex. “Just because we’re kissin’ doesn’t mean we’re undressin’, no”, Estelle tells him. Likewise, “No Substitute Love” melodically quotes George Michael’s “Faith” in a song about a lack of faith in relationships, not holding out for fellas who offer nothing but infidelity, broken promises, and lies.
On her only previous hit, “1980”, Estelle claimed that she left home, “touched Africa and came back a little bit darker”. Now that she has touched America, she has dived into the old stacks of Stax and gotten in touch with the roots of the music she loves. It’s a sweet, down-home groove she has found, less retro-fitted than Whinehouse or Duffy, and more neoteric, like Hill and Badu, incorporating elements of hip-hop, reggae, and modern pop into her efforts. It’s admittedly a bit bricolage, but Shine is such a rococo patio-and-sprinklers, ice-cream-and-beach-chairs album throughout that its transitions rarely feel jagged. Hopefully, it won’t be the last treat we get from Estelle before the looming threats of world disaster catch up to us.