REVIEW: Estelle – All Of Me

Estelle_AOM

Artist: Estelle
Album: All of Me
Genre: R‘n’b/hip hop/soul
Label: Warner Music, Atlantic Records

Estelle’s third album has been some time in coming. Singles were released as long ago as 2010 – though the under-performance of those efforts led to their being dropped from the finished product – and more were put out as far back as April last year. It seems then that the album itself would want to have something special about it to justify its prolonged preparation, and while All of Me is certainly good, it doesn’t have the added spark or brilliance needed to really thrive. It takes a while to settle and sometimes its attempts to blend a wide range of styles and influences give the album a sense of unevenness or incompleteness. By the time it plays out on “Do My Thang,” an exuberant duet with Janelle Monae, it will likely have found a way to endear itself but this takes too long for the album to earn star marks.

That said, one of the things that’s most striking about All Of Me is its spoken word interludes. The album is punctuated by several short tracks that are essentially excerpts from dialogue between a group of friends, in which they discuss relationships, tradition, family, intimacy, and education amongst other things. It’s an intriguing snapshot of the life and stories behind the music and makes for a more informed listening experience, the listener getting a glimpse of something human amidst the fragmented beats. The first such piece arrives in the wake of opening tracks “The Life” and “International (Serious)” and immediately crafts a smoother atmosphere. “The Life” is uneven and startling, mixing elements of hip hop and pop with a passionate vocal rendition by Estelle. The tougher edges clash with the more feminine moments, somewhat dubiously for my tastes, but its insistence on never settling does keep you on edge. “International…” features Chris Brown and Trey Songz on guest vocal duties, providing sullen rapping numbers to counter Estelle’s stirring singing. It’s Rihanna-esque, if you’ll pardon that comparison, but without the gratuitous innuendo. I find it difficult to write anything positive about Chris Brown at the best of times but this track is messy and uncouth as it is, so I needn’t worry about that. It does improve with the addition of some harmonies later on, though the bizarre music does nothing to lighten the mood or effect.

It seems to me that Estelle does better when she embraces a more natural and liberated sound. “Love the Way We Used To” for instance is far more restrained, with a gentle, endearing rhythm and soft soul beats. It is light and loving and even with the discordant percussion has a far sweeter appeal. The warm, sunny piano of “Wonderful Life” also excels in this manner, while “Back to Love” is chirpy, frivolous, and fun-loving. Driven by a funky and engaging beat, it indulges its frothy sentiments and features a careful, thoughtful vocal performance. It does, however, also showcase one of the album’s persistent faults in that it seems deliberately restrained. There’s a constant sense that the songs could be better were they a bit more ambitious and did more to realise their show-stopping potential. As a result, the album is without any one real stand-out number, and although it has several good tracks there’s nothing truly stunning here to evidence the effort and preparation that went into All of Me.

“Break My Heart,” which features Rick Ross, has this problem too but succeeds in its dextrous vocal interplay. The contrasting singing styles lend it a flowing effect that masks the lack of innovation. “Thank You” is the one track to convey some invention. The distant guitar provides a faint thrill of excitement, while Estelle’s solemn vocals are stronger and grittier here than on any of the other songs. This touch of darkness builds to an exquisitely momentous ending, cementing it as a uniquely atmospheric piece.

“Speak Ya Mind” is a burst of energy for the album’s latter stages. More like a straightforward rap track, it’s fast-paced, sharp, and sure of itself with some pleasing musical quirks. Its confidence is impressive and it’s easily accessible, blending neatly with the final dialogue piece. “Do My Thang” mixes cheerful instrumentation with a clear sense of self for an emphatic ending.

It’s difficult to escape the sense that, given how long it’s taken for this album to land, it could have been a lot better. It’s good but never really great, and seems frustratingly unwilling to realise its full potential. These songs will provide individual moments of enjoyment, but as a whole All of Me falls far short of being the best it could be.

SCORE: 7/10
Review written by Grace Duffy

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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