British Rapper Estelle's Many Takes on Favorite Subject, Sex

At the 9:30 club on Sunday, Brit rapper Estelle served up her eclectic, energetic songs.
At the 9:30 club on Sunday, Brit rapper Estelle served up her eclectic, energetic songs. (By Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"I don't know how to stay in one genre," Estelle Fanta Swaray declared during her Sunday night concert at the 9:30 club. She was hardly apologizing, though -- more like sharing her mission statement.

The nascent British star has shortened her stage name to Estelle, but the music on her delightful American debut, "Shine," isn't nearly as streamlined. Not that there's anything wrong with that: As engaging as she is eclectic, Estelle is a sensation both at home and abroad. Just don't confuse her with those other U.K. soul singers, Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse. For one thing, Estelle's music covers more ground. For another, she's black, which makes her something of an anomaly.

The singer/rapper showed off her winning, wandering ways during an hour-long show that opened with "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)," a swinging, swaggering blast of hip-hop built around a sped-up Screamin' Jay Hawkins sample. The main set closed with Estelle's breezy disco-rap breakthrough, "American Boy," which referenced Deee-Lite's house-pop anthem, "Groove Is in the Heart." Recorded as a duet with Kanye West, the track was one of the great summer jams of 2008 and won a Grammy for best rap/sung collaboration. In concert, Estelle admitted to being "so sick of singing it" that she asked the obliging audience to do it for her.

In between, the 29-year-old West Londoner shouted-out Tina Turner and Tom Jones; flirted with reggae dancehall via the boom-bap beat of "Magnificent"; toughened up Coldplay's limestone rock with a hopped-up cover of "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face"; paid tribute to the Temptations with an exuberant version of "Get Ready"; mashed-up George Michael's "Faith" and Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" to terrific effect on her own "No Substitute Love"; and sang a seductive reggae ballad, "Come Over," which arrived after a most memorable introduction: "I wrote this song about first-date sex . . . "

Many of Estelle's songs, in fact, are about sex and sexual politics. In "More Than Friends," she sang -- and rapped -- about growing tired of being a friend with benefits; after the song, she noted that some of the guys in the 9:30 audience were giving her funny looks. She shrugged: "I got some things to say!"

"Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)" found Estelle negotiating boundaries even as she seduced a man: "Just a touch/We can take our time, you ain't got to rush." In the intoxicating "Magnificent," she challenged a guy to come and get it. "American Boy" had her playing the part of sexual tourist, singing of her American mark: "Don't like his baggy jeans/but I'ma like what's underneath 'em."

Standout "No Substitute Love" sounded sweet, with its doo-wop vocals and lilting melody, but it was a bitter kiss-off on which Estelle toggled between a husky singing voice that vaguely suggested Sarah Vaughan's and a slightly rugged rap flow, which she used to underscore her anger.

Calling Estelle a singer/rapper might be getting it backward, actually; she's a fine singer, but she's an even better MC, making her something like the inverse of Lauryn Hill, whose feisty, frank music Estelle's sometimes recalls. On the self-reassuring "Shine," a song about being broke but fabulous, Estelle even machine-gunned some lyrical triplets while her all-male band played on.

For the encore, "So Much Out the Way," Estelle decided to play the part of straight-up rapper, rhyming over a Grover Washington Jr. sample that's long been a hip-hop favorite. Despite the hip-hop packaging, though, the song's rhymes made reference to Estelle's broad musical interests -- a final reminder that she'd be lost trying to confine her marvelous, multifarious mix to any particular genre.

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