Estelle feat. Kanye West — “American Boy”

Released: 4.15.08

Peak: #9

Enthusiasm is corny. More than a decade since Dre made “Been There, Done That” gangsta rap’s very own “Where’s the beef?,” blasé indifference remains a core hip-hop sentiment. Rappers and R&B singers know to survey the glitzy worlds that their newly attained wealth has opened to them with the jaded eye of the practiced consumer. So maybe only an wide-eyed outsider like Estelle could properly enthuse over the options that affluence makes possible. In “American Boy,” the U.S. is an exciting tourist destination, as glimpsed from the perspective of a young woman who’s only heard it described in rap songs. Estelle could almost play the girl in T.I.’s globetrotting “Whatever You Like.”

“American Boy” sets up Kanye, in full foot-in-mouth mode, as the titular clod, rhyming “UK” with “you, K.” and “bloke” with “bespoke.” While his contemporaneous public appearances and the self-absorbed sexism of 808s and Heartbreak had cemented his status as a heel and whiner both, here he exhibits the boyish appeal (enthusiasm, even) that first won us over. And he’s not the only Yank to benefit from “American Boy” — safe to say that will.i.am, suavely sampling his own track here, has never enjoyed such critical acclaim for a production (or anything else). .am’s high-stepping beat and gauzy keyboards set the mood, updating Estelle’s UK-style R&B traditionalism for a hip-hop audience.

But Estelle, previously all but unknown in the U.S., is the star here. She’s a real presence, bringing personality rather than mere celebrity to the track. Her ever-so-slight vocal gruffness undercuts any naivete we might suspect on her part, and she drops a slight Jamaican “w” into “boy” without affectation. And though she’s classy enough not to like her boy’s baggy jeans, there’s nothing prissy about her hope that “I’m-a like what’s underneath them.” Note also how the qualifier “American” implies that she’ll have other boys as well, lest Ye get too full of himself. Not much contemporary pop can be called “charming,” but “American Boy” fits the bill.

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