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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 doesn't matter which side of the Atlantic the artists cross from or even what style of music they play; if there's even a chance they'll bring something more compelling than domestic product, it's worth going to see them live.
True, music journos tend to be impressed by music sung with an accent, as if that vocal flavor actually makes a difference. This explains how untalented and unoriginal Brit figures like Duffy and Lily Allen got props from the American press. Brit soul singer Estelle's gig last Tuesday at the Culture Room was one of those shows where the hype easily could have drowned the performance itself. Luckily it was in Fort Lauderdale, not Miami, which meant a more modest set-up; half an hour down I-95 and the glitz would have made it a lot harder to focus on Estelle's voice.
Not familiar with Estelle? Atlantic Records is betting you will be any minute now, as her album Shine lands in stores this week. It's full of a rare blend of purposely jarring hip-hop, soul, and pop tunes that, at times, seem too transatlantic for their own good, but overall are refreshing. What's different about this slim, sexy Brit from contemporaries like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and Joss Stone is that Estelle is black. Very black — because, let's face it, color and complexion matters at the pop level. And when she hit the stage last Tuesday at the Culture Room, her music was undeniably and globally black (pop songs included).
She was in town with R&B singer John Legend, her boss of sorts, as Estelle is signed to Legend's boutique label HomeSchool Records, in partnership with Atlantic. The show was invite-only — not even the press was on hand, although you know this was the type of performance that Dred Scott wouldn't dare miss. And Estelle, 28, spent an hour on stage giving audiences an extended version of what, until that point, most of us had only been able to hear via her MySpace page.
With a singing and rapping style that's deeply rooted in her West London neighborhood, there's a fusion of the music of the immigrant streets she grew up on. She'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 is that she has a tremendous voice, one that seems honey-dipped at times and melodic, yet she's also a rapper with strong skills and boom-bap swagger. Local producer Supa Dups of Black Chiney who did work on her album considers her a younger, less jaded Lauryn Hill without the baggage.
Watching her on stage jumping into her marquee songs like the infectious "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)," "Listen Up," and "Come Over" produced by Dups, and you could hear immediately how polished all of her compositions are. She's got expensive producers crafting all of this, and Mark Ronson, Swizz Beatz, will.i.am, Cee-Lo, Legend, and Kanye West are all on the album.
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 part-time Miami resident Wyclef Jean, captures the essence of the Caribbean influence on English music and is my favorite tune on the album.
By contrast, "American Boy" is probably the worst song on the album, and predictably, it's the lead single. It has the can't-miss hitmaker Kanye West as a guest star and is as radio-friendly as anything Estelle's ever made, but when she sang it last week, I couldn'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 Legend and Kanye is that you won't hear any 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, because she's eased off it to be a pop star worldwide. There's nothing wrong with the latter, but I stood at the Culture Room wanting to hear something inherently British in her. Instead she's bringing a soul mash-up that touches on most parts of the African Diaspora. The fact that Legend is behind it says a lot.
I caught up with Legend after the show to see if he thought his newest artist really had a good chance of capturing America's ears.
"The thing is, she makes pop songs," Legend said backstage. "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, but there's still sincerity in his words.
While I was chatting with Estelle I could see that she had that deer-in-the-headlights expression from the hype surrounding her. She doesn't look comfortable with any of it, but that's changing by the day.
"This is all a dream come true for me," she says gingerly, trying to limit how much she speaks. "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."
There was really nothing else for her to say. Her songs speak for themselves and with Atlantic pushing, "American Boy" will probably be the summer anthem of 2008.
After she left Fort Lauderdale, her next gig was the David Letterman show two nights later, where she made her national television debut. There was a moment after her performance when Letterman shook her hand and she wouldn't let go. It continues for a few seconds, and then Letterman lifts her hand up, kisses it like a proper songstress of yesteryear would demand, and continues to hold her hand as the camera fades out. It's not certain if all this will make her a proper superstar, but Estelle is at least showing us all that she knows how to shine.