She of “American Boy,” 2008’s greatest song about romance requiring frequent flyer miles, has returned with her third studio album, “All Of Me,” and brother, it is a confident album. Estelle knows herself very well, and her music sounds so thoroughly like her that she has completely earned the right to use a singular moniker.
Estelle’s specialized brand of crisp and breezy soul-infused hip hop is a constant treat, with enough exploration of different styles to keep things fresh with a clear, consistent voice tying the whole package together. I mean, I wish I was as confident and positive as Estelle. She’s the Fonzie of female rappers.
“This Is the Life” is a feel-good banger, with a pulsing, thumping beat that somehow elevates what could have been a run-of-the-mill materialistic rap. Appropriately, it has a little Kanye wafting in the air. A question: Really, who is the guy that says “yeah” in the background of every song ever these days? He’s all over Drake and Lana Del Rey‘s albums, and he’s probably the most influential man in music right now.
“Love the Way We Used To” is a quintessential Estelle cut, just slightly jazzy and melancholy with a torch song burn in the verses. The chorus is buoyant and hits all the sweet notes, and the lyrics have a wistful quality straight out of a 1930s musical revue: “No I’m not getting misty/And no you cannot kiss me/Though I might not mind.”
Slow jam “Cold Crush” evokes Sade through and through, which I think Estelle would take as a compliment. The whole album is an examination of the different places we find ourselves in love, whether conflicted or joyous. Here, it’s a forbidden passion, and Estelle warbles through all the pain. “Break My Heart” offers another take, with a feature from Rick Ross that goes a long way toward providing a little texture. The Teflon Don’s grit contrasts well with our gal’s light, slinky urban soul — sweet and salty. Estelle’s crooning has a tangible sadness here.
“All Of Me” gets chirpy in its back half, led by “Wonderful Life.” It sounds like a Macy Gray song drizzled in honey, with any rough edges polished off. Really, it’s a sunny, bouncy, lovely soul-pop number. Make some pancakes while you listen to this. “Back to Love” is strings! Strings! Strings! More than any other track, this one tells the story of the album.
“Speak Ya Mind” is a dancehall treasure, but it has the disadvantage of preceding the sublime “Do My Thing,” featuring Janelle Monae (who, it has to be said, picks great projects to work on). In a titanically empowering doo wop crowd-pleaser, the two chanteuses’ styles blend perfectly. Toes will tap.
The only misfire on the entire album is the Chris Brown/Trey Songz-featuring “International.” Not only is it redundant after “This Is the Life,” but Estelle can do so much better than the lowest common denominator. Her songbird lilt gives the track a little mileage, but it’s such blatant club pandering that it feels entirely false. Trey Songz is useless, Breezy is Breezy, and the only two redeeming factors are Estelle rapping the word “hashtag” and the way she calls Songz “Trigga,” which is patently adorable.
A series of candid, conversational skits is peppered throughout the album, with production assistance from ?uestlove. There’s not a whole lot to say about them, but they do reinforce the message of the individual tracks and serve their purpose admirably. “Blue Skies” in particular elicited a guffaw or three.
Estelle has crafted a clear-eyed, engaging album with a song for every season. With remarkable consistency, “All Of Me” keeps its head on its shoulders.
(4) “Love the Way We Used To”
(10) “Wonderful Life”
(12) “Back to Love”
(15) “Do My Thing”