All of Me
A decade ago Estelle Swaray occupied an unenviable niche on the British black music scene. Renowned for regularly guest-appearing on wilfully low-selling records, her star seemed destined never to rise.
It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when in 2004 the resolute singer/rapper hit the singles chart with 1980, a refreshingly frank recollection of her childhood. The subsequent album flopped, however, hence the general bewilderment four years on when Estelle emerged as a major breakthrough act in the US, winning a Grammy Award for the single American Boy.
This time it was Estelle employing the services of a guest MC - Kanye West - having approached the rap superstar and his soulful associate John Legend in a restaurant. The little-known Briton became the first signing to the latter's new label, Homeschool, and the subsequent album, Shine, was a slick and successful affair, if lacking the homespun flair that made 1980 so memorable.
Four years on and Estelle's second record for Homeschool should cement her status as a solid US chart act, although the cast list suggests a further shift from her roots. Two controversial hip-hop/R&B acts - Rick Ross and Chris Brown - have been coerced aboard, and the opening brace of songs is deeply disconcerting.
The Life - an abrasive, drum-heavy club anthem - begins with some bitter swipes from Estelle at the folks she left behind. Her dismay at the dominance of white British soul acts such as Adele and Amy Winehouse ("Go ahead and get Back to Black again") is well-documented after a headline-grabbing rant in 2008. Her old label's desire for more-of-the-same also clearly still rankles ("1980 still? Oh yeah, all of that again"), although ironically The Life actually adds weight to her adversaries' argument. Angry posturing over pumping beats is far from Estelle's forté.
Not that the now Brooklyn-based singer is anti-Britain - her talented young compatriot Tinie Tempah and London itself get positive mentions - and the worldwide shout-outs continue on International (Serious). A quasi-dance hall effort, it features Brown, rapper Trey Songz, hot producer David Banner and a bizarre Caribbean twang from Estelle, as if imitating Brown's famous, Barbados-born ex-girlfriend. Many might argue that one Rihanna is more than enough.
Thankfully, All of Me improves immeasurably from here, and noticeably matures as it progresses. After that edgy opening burst comes a midsection devoted to the vagaries of romance, which is an enjoyably mixed bag, led by the retro-soul of Love the Way We Used To. The rotund Rick Ross then unfortunately interrupts Estelle's sweet nothings on Break My Heart with unlovely rambles about penthouses and how he expects perfection. "So many questions," sings a bemused Estelle.
The Akon-written single Thank You is also an oddity, boasting a hummable chorus but dubious lyrics, from the horribly cumbersome ("you're my other half, without you I cannot be whole") to the curiously antiquated "I thank you, for making me a woman".
Self-empowerment eventually wins out. Both the lovely Wonderful Life and trancey Back to Love are strength-through-adversity songs ("you've moved on and that's OK" sings a grounded Estelle on Back to Love), while during Speak Ya Mind she tellingly recommends The Miseducation, Lauryn Hill's message-laden 1998 album. Clearly influenced by that record, Estelle even emulates its between-song snippets of classroom wisdom, breaking up the tracks with snatches of conversation about love, life, even the importance of listening to your mother.
The message remains rather mixed, though, and Speak Ya Mind's call-to-arms is particularly incongruous given Brown's presence on this album: Rihanna was hospitalised after speaking her mind, after all. But perhaps the gradual shift towards Girl Power here is designed as a subtle dig at those urban-music misogynists, as by the ebullient final track, Do My Thing, Estelle and the splendid Janelle Monae are feeling decidedly militant. "Say what you want," they trill, triumphantly, "but this one ain't gonna change."
Estelle already has. 1980 is now but a distant memory.