It's hard to believe that one of last year's biggest hits almost didn't make it to radio, let alone on to the album it highlights. But that's the story behind Estelle's soul-stirring smash "American Boy," from her hit LP, Shine. "We were just messing about," says the relatively newly minted British singing sensation. "I just thought it was fun. I didn't think it would be as big as it was, you know?"
Now we do. And so does everybody else with ears. "American Boy," which featured an inexplicably accented Kanye West rapping up a quiet storm, ruled radio throughout the summer of '08. It charted in 18 countries, including the United States (where it hit number nine) and her native United Kingdom (number one). It also earned two Grammy nominations — one for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, the other for Song of the Year.
Be that as it may, the world still wants to know the name of that American boy she's singing about. "There's no American boy on that song," Estelle says by phone, laughing in the face of my failed scoop. "It was John's [John Legend] idea. We were in the studio hanging out, and there were a lot of guys around. He said, 'Why don't you sing about an American boy?' And I said, 'Sure, I can do that! You'll be the inspiration! Sure!' "
Aha! By now though some American boy has rightfully stepped up to take her hand, no?
"I don't go into that," she says, summarily ending the line of that inquiry. Estelle's been linked to everyone from Kanye to Sean Paul, and if I couldn't get her to fess up, I at least wanted to hear some kind of denial. Estelle did tell a certain British celebrity weekly that dating Kanye would be like "incest," so I suppose that's one cat perspective suitors won't have to worry about. Now, how about the other 140 million or so American males?
If the sigh at the other end of the phone is any indication, Estelle would like to talk about things other than rumors and men. Meanwhile, in addition to the rumors of romance, the tabloids insist there are riffs between Estelle and both Adele and Duffy, two of her chart-topping compatriots. Estelle, however, insists it isn't true — none of it.
"I never said 'I hate Duffy; I hate Adele.' I never said that. In fact, I like Adele's voice a lot."
OK, but which of the two is more annoying?
"Oh God. If I answer that question, it's gonna go all over the world tomorrow, so... You know, I don't know either of them personally, so I can't say which is more annoying."
Spoken like a true diplomat. There are, though, a few good divas whom Estelle is willing to spill about, like Mary J. Blige, whom she's "already reached out to," Erykah Badu, whom she "thinks she'd get on with," and the "wicked" Santogold. These are the three Estelle said she'd most like to work with next. And after a year that saw her singing with Sean Paul, Kanye, Cee-Lo, and, of course, John Legend, this wish list doesn't seem to be that far-fetched.
Still, it is to Legend that she must remain most faithful and indebted. After all, it was he who gave the lass her second big break, signing her to his HomeSchool Records after it seemed the British public had moved on to other pop stars and bringing her out on the road as an opener.
"I met John almost ten years ago," she recalls. "We've been in contact since before he was signed and before I was signed. I met him because I had this mixtape I dropped off to Kanye, and I said I wanted to meet John, and he said, 'Yeah, come to the studio later.' And I did."
In other words, she was already a fan of Legend's back when she famously approached Kanye at Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in L.A.
"I wasn't trying to be a groupie," she insists. "I was just about my business and about the music. John, I think, liked the way I came just from a music point of view. He believed in me."
And believe he did, not just helping Estelle to enlist the above-mentioned series of superstar singers but gathering a production team that seems to be dipped in platinum, including Swizz Beatz, will.i.am, Wyclef, and Mark Ronson, all of who produced tracks on the blockbuster Shine. But despite that heavy dancefloor pedigree, Estelle said she'd really like to work with Rick Rubin. Why? Because of his work with... Johnny Cash.
"In fact, I think Rick Rubin should write a book!" she enthuses. "I'm sure everyone would want to read about his life."
OK, so I'll ask Rubin to get on that book, and I'll add Cash to the list of influences that Estelle's bio states ranges from Ella Fitzgerald ("the be all and end all") to Dinah Washington (because "[s]he's so cheeky"). There's also the Tina Turner homage in the clip for "Go Gone," from 2004's debut LP, The 18th Day. And that same record's "Pretty Please (Love Me)" seems to owe a little something to the Supremes. In fact, she gushes, she wishes she had lived in the 1960s.
"I really think sometimes that I was reincarnated somehow. I especially like Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. I used to listen to [their Greatest Hits] over and over and over and over. It's like 'Wow!,' you know?"
Indeed. Wow and double wow. In fact, one can kind of see Estelle and Kanye becoming some 21st-century equivalent of Motown's most famous duo. If, that is, she can keep her duets tied down to one man. I mean, did you see the way she sassily strutted around in Gym Class Heroes' clip for "Guilty as Charged"? It's deliciously scandalous.
And while all that sass and strut might mark the traits of a true diva, they also represent the newfound glory of a woman who's come into her own after four long years of finding herself between The 18th Day and Shine. "The Estelle of 2004 was a kid," she wisely remarks. "And the Estelle of 2008 is a woman. It's as simple as that. Before, it was about what the world should be like; now, it's about what the world is like."