She may be a born-and-raised West London girl, but we’d venture that 28-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. 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 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.
I grew up all over West London—West Kent, Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush—and stayed in West London my whole life. Everyone thinks I’m from South, I don’t know why. I think the assumption is that South is kind of like Brooklyn, and I have that swagger. We were broke but we didn’t know it—it was that kind of moment. We grew up around a lot of crazy situations, drugs and that kind of stuff, but we weren’t too much aware of it. My mom was good at shielding us from it.
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. “You don’t have to compromise yourself as an artist,” says Estelle. “You just have to make the standard believable and relatable.” While her previous successes were notable, they followed an unconventional path. She won a 2004 MOBO for “Best Newcomer” after she had already received “Best Female Artist” at the UK Hip Hop Awards three years in a row. Still, she was frustrated by what she describes as a glass ceiling in the UK urban music industry. “A lot of UK labels don’t expect you to get beyond a certain point.” “There’s more to life than just taking what someone gives you,” she adds, 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 open for Legend during his European Get Lifted tour, a pairing that would continue for two years, and eventually blossom into the Homeschool deal. My mom is African, but I still have my West Indian roots. She would make African food and listen to African music, but we still had rice and peas and reggae. So I’m able to adapt. I’ve spent the last five years of my life traveling, so my viewpoint is wider than the average rapper or singer. Before any deals were signed I got to go to Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil… that shaped me for what was to come.
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 the 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, Wyclef 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.” My influences? Ella Fitzgerald—she’s my be all and end all. Mary J. Blige, because she’s a person I love to sing to. Recently, Dinah Washington. She’s so cheeky in performances. I like the emotion in a lot of classic rock, Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses. Freddie Mercury—“Bohemian Rhapsody” is still classic. Put it on today and it’s still an original mix of sounds. Released in the Spring of 2008 Shine is also an 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.