About a month ago, the ballad “Thank You” infiltrated R&B radio and left fans scrambling to identify the pained, powerful voice. Was it a more subdued Adele? Or had Mary J. Blige gone the route of Madonna and picked up the tiniest hint of a fake British accent? Turns out the voice belonged to Estelle, the U.K. singer best known for the 2008 single “American Boy.”
“American Boy,” a pop hit about a West End girl longing for a handsome tour guide through the United States, is a great flirty little track, but it’s unfortunate for two reasons: It features Kanye West rhyming “bloke” with “bespoke,” and it has pigeonholed the immensely talented, diverse Estelle as a sweet, cheery singer of happy songs, which is only a small part of what she does. “I have to sing ‘American Boy’ [darn] near every single day!” she said in her Wednesday night show at the Birchmere, part of the BET Music Matters Tour with rising stars Elle Varner and Stacy Barthe. The singer made sure to note that she wasn’t complaining about its enduring success but said it’s hard to perform such an upbeat confection night after night. “Sometimes I get off stage and want to punch people,” she confessed.
Estelle’s latest album, “All of Me,” which is out Tuesday, has the singer throwing quite a few unexpected jabs. During the show, she wailed out “Thank You,” bringing the crowd to its feet, and also tested the understated “Wonderful Life,” which she said she wrote, in part, to help her appreciate her lot when she got sick of performing “American Boy.” “Break My Heart,” featuring Rick Ross and produced by Don Cannon, is a perfect specimen of modern hip-hop soul.
And if music from the new album wasn’t enough to convince everyone that she’s much more than her biggest hit, Estelle had a London house diva moment with the David Guetta produced “Freak,” danced to a little Afro-beat, did some slow-winding to her own reggae-influenced tracks “No Substitute Love” and “Come Over” (both from 2008’s “Shine”), and made like Ella Fitzgerald with a version of “Baby Don’t You Go ’Way Mad” over a go-go beat.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.