It’s almost embarrassing to realize that while I was writing and recording tiny indie records in East London, Estelle Swaray, from Hammersmith, West London, was conquering the charts with hit singles like “American Boy,” a song that won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and currently has 25 million hits on YouTube. Somehow, I was completely oblivious to her success.
Perhaps it has something to do with the propensity of “scenes” to be inward-looking. By surrounding ourselves with people who like the same things we do, we tend only to be aware of artists we already know. For example, I know both Belle and Sebastian and Sleater-Kinney released new records — amongst people I know, those albums are the biggest in the world. I’m curious as to how Estelle somehow passed me by while I was aware of white singers from London who were making similar music, like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy. (Amy Winehouse perhaps more so than the others, because I lived down the street from her in Camden and would see her sometimes, barefoot and floating on the pavement like a strange, drunken princess.)
Nevertheless, at some point, I dropped out of contemporary pop culture and instead immersed myself in the popular culture of the past. I have a lot of soul, blues and Motown records, but not a lot of modern r&b. I’m listening to the new Estelle record and trying to rectify that.
These are some things I really like about Estelle: She writes her own songs, although it’s difficult to know which writing is hers when the album is credited to seven different authors. It makes me curious about how these songs are written, especially considering her lyrics are honest, vibrant and sometimes shocking. She has, unquestionably, an incredible voice, and doesn’t restrict herself to any particular style — she jumps comfortably from power ballads to early-’90s house to sassy r&b to reggae pop. I’m also impressed by anyone who comes from an immigrant background who succeeds in the music industry, and Estelle is enormously successful. (Her mother was from Senegal, her father from Grenada.)
Musically, True Romance is a big mix. I like “Conquerer,” the first single, although I have to say that I prefer the piano-led “Urban Radio” single version to the rockier album take. “Something Good,” a Technotronic-esque house track, is a lot of fun, with a brilliant three-note sax solo and a cheeky vocal performance. There’s the “sexual empowerment anthem” (read: filthy) “Make Her Say (Beat it Up),” which is actually great, with really interesting backing vocals that land somewhere between Bobby McFerrin, Missy Elliot and Bjork’s work on Medúlla. (Admittedly, I don’t think most people will be zeroing in on the backing vocals when they listen to it.) Other highlights are “Silly Girls,” which wanders into Avalanches territory, sample-wise, and “She Will Love,” a sunny, reggae-pop commitment to love, complete with air horn.
Then there are some things about Estelle that I like a bit less. Establishing your own style as an artist is always really difficult, especially as we have access to more music now than we’ve ever had before. Estelle changes styles so effortlessly, without really putting her own stamp on any particular genre, that I’m not quite sure who “Estelle, the artist” really is. In the end, she risks sounding generic, and I think this matters.
In fact, I think this might be one of the reasons why I fell out of popular culture in the first place. Everything sounds too flawless, too perfect. I like things when they have lost their shine, when they’re a bit broken. To quote David Berman, “All my favourite singers couldn’t sing.” Estelle does have an incredible voice, but that’s not enough for me. This is an album about falling in and out of love, and finding yourself again when love ends. I want to hear about the long nights and empty days of loneliness; about the breathlessness and invincibility of romance; about the realization that just one thing in your life has made everything else perfect, and the terror that you might one day lose it keeps you awake at night. Of course, that makes it harder to sell millions of albums, but some people get away with it (Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and, yes, Amy Winehouse).
Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to another reason why I stopped paying attention to the pop charts: the selling. Estelle isn’t just a musician, she sells her own line of scarves as well. I’m sure they’re lovely and beautiful, so why do I feel uncomfortable about it? Is it any different from Taylor Swift, Britney and Beyoncé, who all sell their own perfumes, for example? Or from U2 (and everyone else) who got into bed with Apple? I guess it is, as Estelle apparently designs the scarves herself, so she is being creative. It’s just that I fell in love with music because songs could express things that I wasn’t capable of expressing myself. I’m wary of pop stars having fashion labels, perfumes and brands, mainly because I tend to think that’s less time they’re spending in the studio, making songs I want to cry to.
How do I feel about True Romance, in the end? I had fun listening to it, I think there are some nice songs, but there’s not enough for me to fall in love with Estelle, the artist. Estelle the person, I’m sure, has her heart in the right place.