Estelle: She Swoops to Conquer

estelle-true-romance

“American Boy” was almost seven years ago, and Estelle Swaray may never again work with Kanye, will.i.am or John Legend, let alone get all three fussing over the same hit. On the up side, she may never score another Rick Ross verse or duet again with Chris Brown. The British singer’s fourth album has no big-name guests at all, and that’s kind of a relief.

The music on True Romance is stylish and cosmopolitan and retro, combining the cool deliberation of the upstart aesthete and the fretful opulence of new money in the manner that’s practically become a British R&B tradition. There’s a glistening house track and a chintzy reggae patch and plenty of ‘70s throwback, from a melodic scrap of the Good Times theme to a sprinkling of Gamble & Huff strings, though it’s not the showy pastiche of Mark Ronson, who may not be returning Estelle’s calls anymore either.

Estelle doesn’t sound like she’s written off stardom — why else collaborate with five other songwriters on “Conqueror,” one of those ballads about self-esteem pulverizing heartbreak that much more famous women often sing? But while such choruses call for our heroines to become ego-fueled mecha-valkyries girded for fiery oblivion, Estelle wafts upward less martially. There’s a homely, worrying piano hook here that Ryan Tedder would never settle for, which is why we should never settle for Ryan Tedder.

There’s a sexy interlude — rough on “Make Her Say (Beat It Up),” illicit on “Time Share (Suite 509),” both scenarios observed from without yet experienced from within. But only when I heard Estelle sing “I’ve never been the one to cry” on “Fight For It” did it occur to be that while “never” might be overstating it, “rarely” isn’t. For an R&B singer, Estelle has little interest in demonstrating her ability to overcome, endure, or otherwise confront adversity.

Throughout True Romance, Estelle repeatedly chooses warmth over intensity, flexibility over power, and that decision adds nuance rather than sacrificing depth. The pleasure she takes in how her voice interacts with even the dimmest romantic cliche suggests something rare in Pop 2015: A human being exploring her potential for happiness.

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