Sometimes simply being refreshing is enough. Take Estelle: she’s a good singer, but not a vocal powerhouse. She’s a fine emcee, but not a magnetic one. And yet, 2008’s Kanye duet “American Boy” was such a shot in the arm; the London vocalist’s flirtatious interplay with Ye was engaging, the hook burrowed deep into the brain, and the splashy electro-funk production sounded like both a fresh diversion and a remarkably spot-on prediction of the direction pop music would take in the intervening years. It didn’t quite catapult Estelle into the upper echelons of pop/r&b royalty, despite its parent album Shine being a remarkably solid slab of modern-pop summer jams, but it did raise the ex-record store employee’s profile enough to score her a few high-profile featured gigs and a moderately-anticipated follow-up. All Of Me isn’t gonna do a whole lot to break Estelle out of perceived one-hit-wonderland, but as on Shine, Estelle proves a charismatic vessel on which to hang a series of immaculately-produced and well-performed pop tunes, and breaks the mold just enough to cause the discerning pop fan to take notice.
To answer the questions that have piled up over the last four years, there’s not really another “American Boy” in Estelle’s arsenal; single “Break My Heart” features some would-be flirty back-and-forth between the singer and Rick Ross, but Ross lacks Yeezy’s goofy charm and atonally melodic flow and, most importantly, chemistry with Estelle. Meanwhile, “International (Serious)” is a boasty globetrotter in the vein of her most famous single, but suffers from a.) focusing more on the travel than on the boy and b.) guest spots from both Chris Brown and Trey Songz, who scientists have yet to prove are not, in fact, the same person.
Elsewhere, Estelle’s emceeing–her initial calling card, believe it or not, in her pre-Shine days–generally lacks distinction, but it’s pleasant all the same. She sticks to singing for the majority of All Of Me, which works for her, given her chameleonic ability to mold herself to any given track; if the stray rap verses that swiftly morph into melodies weren’t an indication that Estelle’s trying to channel vintage Lauryn Hill, consider the recorded philosophical conversations strewn throughout the record (thankfully relegated to their own tracks and not appended to the back end of album highlights as on Miseducation), or, you know, the fact that she raps “I just want them to pull out The Miseducation again” on “Speak Ya Mind”. It’s not quite the channeling that Estelle seems to hope it’ll be, but then again Lauryn’s classic record is a high bar to reach; “Thank You” isn’t quite “Ex-Factor”, but it sufficiently traffics in the same wistful regret and steely resolve.
More relevant are the tracks where Estelle proves an excellent vessel for a crackling pop track. “Cold Crush” is a corker, a smooth throwback jam that slinks along on early-’90s minimalist-funk and faint, burbling ’80s synths; “Back To Love”, meanwhile, pits off-beat stabs of strings and synth against a four-on-the-floor drum machine, and the result is the sort of tasty floor-filler that finds the sweet spot between Erasure and Rihanna. Estelle trades disco for neo-soul on slinky highlight “Love the Way We Used To”, and finds herself swept up in Janelle Monae’s delirious retro-futuristic spaceship on jumpy, catchy, Monae-featuring closer “Do My Thang”. All Of Me isn’t necessarily consistent across the board–and that 15-track-strong tracklist seems disappointing after finding out that a good deal of them are interludes–but these highlights are gold, the kind of album cuts that are just begging to be plucked from their album’s trenches and promoted to radio jams full-time.
And so, if All Of Me isn’t a full-scale winner, Estelle’s given us a lot to chew on; her pleasant voice is never showy, and she never tries to hard to sell her tracks with histrionics or oversinging. There’s a lot that she has the potential to accomplish: she could be a cool diva, Marsha Ambrosius with a poppier bent or Res with a more traditional r&b base, or she could revive the glory days of the Soulquarians with an experimental neo-soul classic. As it stands, All Of Me‘s best tracks outstrip its weaknesses pretty effortlessly, and Estelle’s positioning herself as a force of nature a few years down the line. But, Estelle, let’s avoid superfluous guest spots next time; activating wonder-twin powers with Janelle Monae is an inspired choice and all, but you’re better than Rick Ross and Trey Songz collabos.