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She may be a born-and-raised West London girl, but we’d venture that 27-year-old Estelle Swaray is right at home in the energy of New York, her newly adopted city. She’s got the self-determination with a bit of swagger. The get-up-and-go hustle. And this is one singer/songwriter/producer/rapper who is not afraid to take risks.
The brief period since moving to NYC from London in May 2007 has been an absolute whirlwind, as Estelle gears up for her re-entry into the musical landscape with Shine, her second album. She’s the first artist to release under John Legend’s new Homeschool label, in partnership with Atlantic Records. It’s her debut on a major label, and an American one at that, but with Homeschool’s philosophy of artist control and good soul music, her affiliation with the label is at the essence of what she’s all about.
“All my songs are 100% my life,” says Estelle. Whereas her 2004 debut album, The 18th Day from V2 Records, was totally self-created, Shine marks the first time Estelle has brought other producers and artists into the creative process with her, and she’s excited by the scope of the music that has come out of these collaborations. Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Wyclef Jean, Will.i.am, Mark Ronson and Cee-Lo & Jack Splash all lend talents to the album, executive produced by John Legend.
“Her sound is a unique blend of hip hop, pop, reggae and soul,” explains Legend. “She has ?a special voice, unlike any other voice out there in mainstream music, and she can really write. She writes hip lyrics with unforgettable ?melodies. I recognized that in her when I first worked with her in ?2004.” He continues, “I’m excited and honored to have Estelle as the first artist on my label,?Homeschool Records. I believe the world is going to fall in love with her album, as I already have. Estelle is an amazing talent, and she’s going to do big things.”
Fans of her previous songs will notice a newly bred confidence, and an unmistakable womanliness to the sound, partly because she sings more on Shine than her previous album. It was Legend who convinced Estelle that it was time to get expand her identity as a rapper by opening up and singing. “I stopped being scared,” she says, and the resulting sound is more mature, soulful, and unlike anyone else on the scene.
Born into a strictly religious Senagalese/Granadan family where she was the second of eight children, Estelle learned early about responsibility for self and family, as well as how to escape life’s daily pressures through music. Though her mother had banned secular music in the house, young Estelle was exposed to African music and gospel (as well as her West Indian stepfather’s roots reggae and dub) via an impressive homemade soundsystem. At school, ’80s pop was the dominant sound. It wasn’t long before a teenage Estelle was sneaking out of the house to hear hip hop.
“There’s more to life than just taking what someone gives you,” says Estelle. It’s a philosophy that has served her well. She moved to New York on her own initiative. Her trademark drive was also in full effect when she happened upon Kanye West outside Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles during a fated trip to Los Angeles. She summoned up the courage to approach the star, and request an introduction with Legend. When the two hit it off, she also pushed her label to let her to open for Legend during his European Get Lifted tour, a pairing that would continue for two years, and eventually blossom into the Homeschool deal.
Swizz Beatz produced the album’s title track. “It’s a continuation of ‘1980’,” says Estelle, referencing the popular 2004 single where she rapped about growing up in London. “This is me, as plainly as I’ll be. It puts a lot of insecurities out there, but at the same time I’m still going to try to be me. As much as I’m giving you that strong woman, there’s still that strong woman who is pretty vulnerable, and that’s pretty much everybody.”
Other tracks include “Magnificent”, a booming dancehall party jam produced by Mark Ronson featuring Kardinal Offishall. Ronson was impressed by the young rapper long before Shine was on the horizon. “I was in England about four years ago and caught the video for her first single ‘1980’,” he says. “I went straight to the record shop two hours later with the sole intention of buying it-that’s how much I was blown away by it. Estelle is such a talented singer, rapper, vocal arranger, and songwriter. I can’t think of anyone else who can do all those things as well as she can. Any time that we work together in the studio, she never comes up with an idea that’s uninspiring.”
Sparks also flew between Estelle and Will.i.am when they recorded the album’s first single, “Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)” anchored by an experimental spin on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” The pair also came up with funk-infused “American Boy” after Legend requested “a hit.” Of the song, which features Kanye West, she laughs, “I gave the ladies an anthem!”
The album’s love songs, while sensual, reveal a thoughtfulness when it comes to modern day matters of the heart. “I’m a real woman. Been in relationships and been hurt, and hurt other people.” When she got into the booth with Wyclef for “Substitute Lover,” Estelle’s answer to the shorty shout-outs dominating hip hop radio, he said he had never worked with a young artist that reminded him so much of Lauryn Hill, mostly because of Estelle’s improvisational style. “I did it on a level of, let me just speak my mind, and then a lot of women out there agree with it.”
Out in spring 2008, Shine is a truly original mix of sounds. Where Senegal meets London and hops the pond. Where funk shimmies up against reggae and R&B. Somewhere out of this world is where you’ll find Estelle.