Musically, Estelle’s output doesn’t conform to that of her R&B peers. She doesn’t possess the show-stopping, flawless production of Beyoncé. Nor does she pander to the overt raunchiness of Rihanna. Even her earlier rap days don’t come near to the cartoonish venom of Nicki Minaj. Instead, Estelle carves out her own niche, blending her husky vocal tones into old school soul tracks, refreshed with contemporary grime and R&B licks. Her music feels nostalgic, but with a modern twist kicking in underneath. Thus, it teeters on the cusp of mainstream; indeed, collaborations on previous projects feature huge names (the likes of Kanye West, John Legend, and Chris Brown), but it never quite spills over. Instead, Estelle has the tenacity to make her music more quirky and personal.
True Romance, the fourth studio album from the West London songstress, is a luxuriously mature affair. An ode to modern love, the album offers a present-day interpretation of the soul album. Conceptually, True Romance plays out like a relationship. The beginning deals with emancipation and owning feminine sexual desire; the middle veers towards stagnation and bickering arguments; while the closing tracks offer mutual love and respect, i.e. “true romance”. Musically these themes correspond with the variety of genres which Estelle dabbles in. True Romance starts in electronic territory, but softens to piano ballad by the end. However, the album is by no means an instant hit. It does take a few listens to really get to the heart of the collection of songs. Yet Estelle blurs the boundaries of the soul album so much, switching from electronic to grime to soul to reggae; as a collective it is hard to place, and this makes True Romance worth listening to.
Time After Time opens the record with a shadowy electro-driven flavour. Lyrically, it sums up the message of the whole album, “I wrote this song to tell you you’re perfect, babe,” Estelle croons as the beat stomps and claps along. Yet it doesn’t feel quite consistent with Estelle’s image. Indeed, Conqueror further departs from her usual cool, and despite its empowering message it comes across a tad strained and cheesy. Something Good connects well with the current resurgence of 90s house, thus paradoxically propelling it into modernity. But while its pulsating bass and buzzing saxophone delivers instrumentally, the song’s underwhelming chorus sadly lets it down. Meanwhile, The Same is a strangely clever track, with its musical form reflecting the lyrical meaning. Unfortunately, as the title suggests, they are both dreary and this track marks a low point on the record. Similarly, Fight For It is much for muchness, which is a shame after the sultry snare drums of Make Her Say (Beat It Up), and the ticking bomb of raw sexual energy in Time Share (Suit 509).
Yet the album rejuvenates itself with the dizzy Silly Girls, adding a gloriously nostalgic retro track to the collection. Its warm trumpets and squeaky backing vocals make for an oddly pleasant combination. Its exploration of the mother/daughter attitudes to romance becomes a nice addition to the love story of True Romance. Estelle’s vocals really come into their own here and her velvety timbre snuggles comfortably into the track. Gotcha Love similarly oozes honeyed nostalgia, returning to her urban cool whilst still smothering the song with an air of class. This sounds like the Estelle we know. Yet she playfully bounces onto the reggae heavy She Will Love in her next breath, totally overturning the mood, before closing the album with the sweet piano ballad, All That Matters.
In the end, True Romance blossoms over time. It’s not often that an album gets better towards the end, but this is the case here. Despite requiring a few attempts, it is ultimately cosy and comforting. Estelle shows a great deal of maturity and adeptness in crafting a soul album with True Romance. Unfortunately in today’s music scene, dominated by immaculate R&B female superstars, it doesn’t stand out enough, nor does it leave any lingering sense of awe. There are places where the album strikes a chord of genuine human emotion, but there are also plenty of flaws too, where things could be tightened up. Yet this imperfect quality works alongside the album’s thematic devices, showing that, in the end, authentic love is undeniable. This is truly part of the album’s charm; its quirkiness and defiance of the perfectionist mainstream. Estelle is never going to be quite in the league of Beyoncé, but she doesn’t need to be, and neither does True Romance.