By Jim Schutze
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If there's one thing music journalists have learned over time, it's that whenever a breakthrough, buzz-laden artist from across the pond shows up in your town for a debut performance, you pay attention.
It's simple, really: We music journos tend to be impressed by music sung with an accent—as if that vocal flavor actually makes a difference.
Not familiar with Estelle? You should be—her "American Boy" collaboration with Kanye West is everywhere these days. And the album that hosts it, Shine, ain't too bad either. It's a rare blend of purposely jarring hip-hop, soul and pop tunes that, at times, seem too transatlantic for their own good.
But what's different about this slim, sexy Brit is, well, the fact that Estelle is black. Very black—because, let's face it, color and complexion matters at the pop level.
With a singing and rapping style that's deeply rooted in her West London neighborhood, her music is a fusion of cultures from the immigrant streets she grew up on. Estelle's one of eight siblings born to a Senegalese mother and a Grenadian father, and even her accent when she sings and raps takes on different tones. What's definitively unique about her style, though, is that she has a tremendous voice, one that seems honey-dipped at times and melodic.
And yet she's also a rapper with strong skills and boom-bap swagger. Consider her a younger, less jaded Lauryn Hill—without the baggage. So it's not surprising, then, that Atlantic Records is betting the bank on her. Shine's got expensive producers crafting Estelle's talent at every turn; Mark Ronson, Swizz Beatz, will.i.am., Cee-Lo, John Legend and Kanye West all have a hand in the album's production.
One of the best cuts here, "No Substitute," is a remake of Half Pint's "I'm Not a Substitute Lover." Estelle's version, produced by Wyclef Jean, captures the essence of the Caribbean influence on English music. By contrast, the big hit on the disc, "American Boy," is probably the worst song on the album; it has the can't-miss hitmaker Kanye West as a guest star and is as radio-friendly as anything Estelle's got on her résumé, yes, but you can't help but want the song to hurry up and end—not because it's bad, but because the rest of the tunes on Shine are so much better.
The lone downside to her affiliation with Kanye and her imprint label boss, R&B sensation John Legend, is that, on her stateside debut, you don't hear as much of the breakbeat, grime or garage music that's more indigenous to her city. And you won't hear enough of the rapping that made Estelle a break-out artist in London—she's sacrificed that style to become a worldwide pop star. There's nothing wrong with that, no. But there is a desire to hear something inherently British in her. Instead, she's bringing a soul mash-up that touches on most parts of the African Diaspora.
Still, the fact that Legend is behind her American crossover debut says a lot. If nothing else, Legend is a critical darling.
"The thing is, she makes pop songs," Legend says. "She may not look like every pop artist or have the same sound, but that's a good thing. The music is definitely pop. The thing is, no urban British artist has come over here with the right album. Her sound is undeniable, and I think audiences are going to love it."
He's got a clear interest in all of this, sure. But there's still sincerity in his words.
In her early stateside performances, Estelle still has had that deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face, thanks to all the hype. She doesn't look comfortable with any of it, but that's changing by the day. Her songs, you realize as you listen to Shine, speak for themselves. And thanks to Atlantic's pushing, "American Boy" just might be looked back upon as the summer anthem of 2008.
"This is all a dream come true for me," she says gingerly—and, of course, with an accent. "The fact that all of this is happening right now and that I'm getting my big shot at stardom in the U.S. means a lot to me."
Means a lot, too, to the impressed music journalists touting her talents. Her rising star is justifying the oldest trick in our book.