Estelle: Britain's hip-hop queen is making her second bid for power
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Friday 07 December 2007
If there's someone who's learning a valuable lesson in second chances, Estelle Swaray is your girl. Back in 2004, the British public seemed poised to grant her the luxuries that come with the mainstream the accolades, commerciality, and fame beyond the safety net of "critical acclaim". After all, urban was in and if Ms Dynamite could do it, Estelle's imprint of UK hip-hop soul could surely make a good impression.
But between the success of her debut hit "1980" (the year of her birth) and its follow-up, "Free", it seems like she disappeared into the wilderness with other potential urban stars until now. So what went wrong? After all, she was signed to Richard "I can sell anything" Branson's label, she had the support of the masses, and schoolkids knew her lyrics inside out. "It seemed to me like things went to a certain level, then it went past that level, and I don't think the label had the know-how or the capacity to deal with it," she says. "We went to some labels after we left V2, and everybody was on some bullshit. Straight-up bullshit. The minute I said to John Legend, 'I'm leaving this label,' he said to me straight up, 'I'll sign you.'"
And so began the next era for Estelle, formerly the pseudo-conscious Brit MC with the tomboy tendencies, and now a savvy business lady living Stateside who might be resurrecting the term girl power for the new millennium. She's the first signing to soul singer Legend's label Homeschool and Atlantic Records and with a sensational sophomore album, Shine, under way, everything about her is indicative of a new woman. On one of her stops doing a week of radio promotion around London, she's rocking the power pumps, wearing a pencil skirt, immaculate make-up, sharp haircut and with her mobile phone pressed firmly to her ear.
Today, the 27-year old reeks of confidence and has taken her outspokenness to a whole new degree. Somebody suddenly mentions her favourite subject men. "I've got four jobs on the go," she scoffs in her sharp Cockney accent, raising her eyebrows. "I've got no time for a fifth." Rather than being the artist who's hoping for a break, she's all about making things happen on her terms even when it comes to dating. "I'm a have it my way, right now you get just one touch," she warns seductively on her new single, "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)". "What is different this time is I know who the hell I am," she tells me a week later. "I've not got a million opinions that I don't care about clouding my thoughts. I'm pretty sure I'm back to where I was when I started back to when I was proud of being signed, back to where I was as a 19-year-old saying, 'this is what I'm gonna do'."
Estelle is currently in the process of making what she hopes will be her big return into the mainstream. She's just finished supporting the US rap superstar Kanye West, along with Common, on his UK tour. It must have been a difficult gig West's mother, Donda West died only last month, but he vowed to continue with the tour, a professional move which brought respectful praise from West's arch enemy 50 Cent. At last weekend's Manchester date, Jay-Z turned up to show his support, allowing Estelle to mix it with rap royalty. But she's getting used to that.
This time around, she's made the unusual decision of going the US route to regain her status back home and she's already been given opportunities that would have never materialised had she continued to grind away in the UK. Wyclef Jean, Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo, Swiss Beatz (the rapper-producer who has worked with everyone from Beyonc to Gwen Stefani and Ja Rule) Mark Ronson, and West have all been enlisted for her new album. "The whole mentality in the UK is to be super insular, be super humble and never expect to get to a certain level, where you get Blur and Oasis and they can be cocky bastards and sell millions, y'know?" In the US, she says, things move and work out for her quickly. "I couldn't wait to go," she admits of her move. "I was straight down bored here. Moving to the US was like a job offer. I was like, 'cool', because no one was offering me any jobs over here. Shit, I thought, 'let me go where they're offering me some jobs, let me go and get paid!' For me, it was a case of needing to be somewhere where it just happens for me."
America seems to have been a good influence on her so far. Even though she seems obligated to litter her speech with Americanisms such as "frickin" like, "It's frickin' amazing", or "my love life is a frickin' train wreck" she seems to have adopted the US gift for grooming, according to her sassy new image. "I first switched when I hit 25 and thought you know what? My boobs are going to drop in five years, and my legs are going to have cottage cheese all over them a thing I cannot stop," she jokes. "So I thought, let me show that shit off real quick. I feel like I'm beautiful, and every woman should feel like that."
She's also living by the Horatio Alger philosophy of pursuing her dreams at any cost. In her case, she moved to New York by herself earlier this year, stayed on her friend's couch, and worked out the deal with Legend, whom she first met four years ago during a trip to Los Angeles. The pair have been firm friends ever since. "I don't think anyone's been signed in the UK, had a hit as big as '1980' and then gone to America to do it the other way around," she quips. "No one's done it like this; hence it took three years to get it right."
The new album, which is mainly about love and relationships, has drawn comparisons with a certain Lauryn Hill and not only because the vocal arrangements are eerily similar or because of the Wyclef endorsement (who's called her "the new Lauryn Hill but cooler"): Estelle has mastered Hill's streetwise ability for storytelling through rapping and singing. "To be compared with Lauryn, she is a legendary artist who has a record I will listen to for the next 20 years, whether she will release something now or never. If you're gonna put me in that vein, thank you," she says, before adding: "Please listen to my album 20 years from now!"
Born to a Senegalese mother and a Grenadian father, Estelle grew up a lively house in south London with her seven siblings and extended family. Her adolescence in the overcrowded council flat was immortalised in her break-out single, "1980", which told tales of her getting her first pair of Nikes, dancing to Mel and Kim and watching Dynasty reruns with her cousin, as well as the darker side of life. "I've seen 50 last three months solid", she raps, before launching into the tale of a neighbour who set his house on fire while another, upstairs, lay dead for three weeks before his body was discovered, by which time his cats had started to eat him.
One constant in this upbringing was the church. Another was music. Although she harboured aspirations to become a lawyer, an uncle introduced her to hip-hop, and by the age of 13 she was penning rhymes. By 19, she was performing with rap pioneers Roots Manuva, Rodney P and Black Twang. A top ten hit with 3SL's "Touch Me Tease Me" in 2002 seemed set to launch her career, but she was soon lost in the whirlwind thrown up by the commercial debut of Ms Dynamite. However, Estelle went on to form her own label, Stellar Ents, to release her mix tapes, and was signed to a label deal with J-DID/V2 in 2003.
Back then, she was part of a crop of female urban acts who were aiming to establish the UK scene namely, Keisha White, Terri Walker, Shystie and the aforementioned Dynamite. Nowadays, the lacklustre support for urban music has unwittingly pitted her against urban-lite acts such as Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Corinne Bailey Rae and Lily Allen artists who have also made a name for themselves in the States. Although Estelle is a fan of the first three, Allen who arguably references the singer's 1980s nostalgia in her music isn't someone Estelle has much to say about. Web forums are already heating up with the potential of a rivalry between the pair.
"Why does everyone keep asking me about this chick?" Estelle asks, with a hint of annoyance. "She's clearly not what I'm about. And I don't care what she's about that's not my reality, I don't identify with it, it means nothing to me. She's a cool-ish girl, but I've not really had long conversations with her to say I like her. If we're gonna do a 50 versus Kanye shit and she's releasing an album at the same time, shit, let's do it. Let's make some money. Other than that, I'm not too bothered about her."
Estelle's primary concern now is making this second chance work for her. The move to the US hasn't been received well by everyone, least of all by some of the very people who once supported her. "People want to say something negative before they say something good," she says, shaking her head.
"But God's with me. You're really just fighting against Him on a level of trying to say negative things about me when I know there are many people who have my back on certain things." There's been a rumour of her only getting signed by Legend because they're supposed to be an item, which she dismisses. "People do you not think I could have got on because of my good work? It's boring now."
Besides, she's got more important things to get on with. "I want a TV series, I'm gonna do some acting jobs, I'm gonna do some Broadway jobs, everything!" Seriously? "How can you not be in this position and not take advantage of everything? Are you nuts?" Her eyes sparkle. "Everybody comes to the US with their 'kinda, maybe, sort ofs'. I'm not about 'kinda, maybe, sort ofs'! This is my life! I'm gonna look back and see a bunch of 'kinda maybe sort ofs'?" She takes a deep breath. "No. I want my kids to see a stronger lady and I want people to have a stronger blueprint to follow than what's been set up before. Hell, yeah, I've got a bunch of shit to do."
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