Saturday, June 26, 2010

Estelle's New Singles Make for an Unlikely Pair

Track Review: "Freak" and "Fall in Love"

You remember Estelle, of course. She's the perky, pleasant Brit whose 2008 single "American Boy" became a breakout summer hit, but in the generally pleasant, "oh I love this song!" kind of way rather than the steamrolling, incessant, "I'm so sick of this f*(%@g song" kind of way (that particular job was being filled that summer by Katy Perry. How times have changed). "American Boy" really was a top notch pop single, too: effervescent and sexy without being forcefully so, set to a groovy dance beat that was versatile enough to seem equally at home in a dance club dj set as on the soundtrack at a swanky bar, and most of all carried by compelling performances by the singer and her collaborator, Kanye West, in easily his best feature performance: rather than just dropping in a few lines of rap in between the second verse/chorus and the final chorus as is typically customary, West shows up at the start and sticks around until the end, almost as in a duet but still letting Estelle own the song as the lead, and it's hard to imagine the track without both of the talented rapper/singers.

Estelle may thus far be a one-hit wonder on our shores, but the 30 year old London native has recently unveiled two tracks from her upcoming third studio album, All Of Me, and they make an intriguing pair. The first, released in February, is "Freak," a grinding, sexy uptempo thumper that, at first, could scarcely sound further removed from the breezy "American Boy." Estelle uses the opening seconds of the track to offer what comes off as part dare, part entreaty (overture as overture?), stating "I can be a freak, every day of every week," not quite convincingly but with enough promise to rope in the skeptic listener, if just to see just how "freaky" this squeaky clean darling thinks she is. What proceeds is truly a fascinating three and a half minutes wherein Estelle at worst amuses as she offers a kink-lite manifesto via a delivery smacking with PG-rated joie de vivre and at best succeeds in the plainly stated endeavor she lays out at the outset:

This is something that I've learned.
Listen, I'm about to teach:
Every single girl 
Should embrace their inner freaky-freak.

Still, the track makes refreshingly good use of rapper and spelling bee champ Kardinal Offishall (best known to pop audiences as either the force behind the Akon-esque number two hit "Dangerous" and/or the rapper who apologized to Viagra on the bafflingly awful radio edit of Lady Gaga's debut smash "Just Dance"), whose bouncing, humorous featured rap provides enough "freaky" for those demanding of full truth in advertising without dragging the track down, musically or content-wise. But for the most part, "Freak" is a lesson of "Kinky Sex for Soccer Moms" over a pounding, immensely enjoyable dance beat, and that Estelle never fully convinces anyone (even herself, I if that were the point) she has gone dirrty the way of Christina "Not Myself Tonight" Aguilera is the charming victory of this thoroughly replayable single.

\"Freak\" Estelle ft. Kardinal Offishall

Unfortunately, the Brits, those masters of subtlety and irony (ha) offered Estelle's eager wild side a rather cool reception, prompting the powers that be to withdraw "Freak" as official lead single for the upcoming album and replace it with the much lighter "Fall in Love," featuring Nas. It's a safe move, to be sure, as "Fall in Love" is to "American Boy" as Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You" is to "Since U Been Gone," and that worked out just fine for Ms. Clarkson in terms of album sales. "Fall in Love," while as tasty as candy and lovable as puppies, is not on the level of "American Boy," despite sounding an awful lot like it.

Of course, there is the obvious reason of having been done before, but even as contemporaries the two would be in separate classes. Where "American Boy" was fresh, eager and engaging, "Fall in Love" is sweet and ho-hum; where the former deftly mixed dashes of sex into a mostly wholesome concoction, the latter wouldn't so much as raise an eyebrow among the fascists at the Parents Music Resource Center; and while "American Boy" smacked of the best Kanye West had to contribute pop music, "Fall in Love" offers an uncharacteristically tame and almost subdued feature rap from Nas, who hasn't really popped his head into the pop music scene since his loud and messy split from singer Kelis. Again, it's nice, but I'm going to need something more convincingly game-changing to sway my allegiance from the Nas of yore, for whom lines like "the pussy in the mouth, that is the question (like Shakespeare) but my erection is the case here," are where he really shines.

\"Fall In Love\" Estelle ft. Nas

While I dare any but the stoniest conscientious objectors not to fall in love with or at least get a little crush on "Fall in Love," the potential for greatness Estelle exhibited with her smash single in 2008 seems as yet unfulfilled. (An alternate version, featuring John Legend, is even less compelling, if just as soothing.) Should All of Me prove more "Freak" than "Fall In Love," however, I remain entirely willing and open to reevaluating that claim.

Watch the video for "Freak" after the jump.

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