Review Summary: Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at the turn of the millennium.
Musicians are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Sound too dated... Get criticized. Force sounding modern... Get criticized. Show no diversity... Get criticized. Show a lack of cohesion... Get criticized. If only it could be as easy as an artist simply performing what they do best. Unfortunately, record labels, album sales and the almighty dollar too often get in the way. No wonder many a musician get more than a little confused; an affliction which English pop/soul/R&B singer Estelle falls victim to on her third LP ‘All of Me’. The signs were not good before the album had even been released, with two American baiting singles (featuring Kardinal Offishall and Nas respectively) being received with so much ambivalence, that they were ultimately excluded from the final cut of the album!
It is a real shame then that ‘All of Me’ kicks off with two tracks that both strongly feature clichéd city shout-outs... Opener ‘The Life’ even substitutes “wherever you came from” at one point. Follow-up ‘International (Serious)’ especially feels awkward, uncomfortable and label forced, with guest spots from Chris Brown and Trey Songz only making matters worse. While not a patch on the Kanye West assisted hit 'American Boy’, eventual lead single ‘Break My Heart’ fares better, with Estelle’s unconventional pairing with Rick Ross somehow working well in an “opposites attract” kind of way. Such songs are not Estelle in her element, but even when she does find a nice enough balance of retro and contemporary on cuts like ‘Cold Crush’ and the ‘Viva la Vida’ echoing ‘Back to Love’, the solid melodies and vocal harmonies are nothing that necessarily stand out as memorable.
Where Estelle does excel on ‘All of Me’ is on a handful of female empowerment anthems, since she is at her most genuine during these tunes. Ballad ‘Thank You’ is a great example of not coming off as preachy, as is the closing Janelle Monae collaboration ‘Do My Thing’, where the two vocalists spur each other on, as a catchy dance-hall flow dazzles in the background. Better yet is penultimate track ‘Speak Ya Mind’, where Estelle practically plays her own co-vocalist and shows diversity by both singing and rapping on an up-tempo track. “I just want them to pull out the miseducation again” she states in a clear reference to Lauryn Hill’s landmark 1998 album, which this release undoubtedly pays homage to. Unfortunately, this is taken a step too far by several conversational interludes that feel like they were recorded at a Relationships Anonymous meeting. Growing in frequency as the LP progresses, these are dated, rather boring and don’t add a great deal in terms of concept.
By all rights, 'All of Me' should be an unmitigated disaster... It could have been an awful mess in the hands of a lesser vocalist. Thankfully, there are times here where Estelle's talent can simply not be ignored. Tracks such as 'Love the Way We Used To', 'Wonderful Life' and 'Thank You' all border on being cheesy, but more than get by on Estelle's sincerity & likeability. In a sense, this English woman is too mature for her accomplices... She should be the star of the show, not her writers and producers who seem to want to modernize her tunes to the nth degree. The end result is a mish-mash of styles that leaves this LP somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at the turn of the millennium. "Do whatever we like" sings Estelle at the beginning of the opener... Yet, one gets the feeling that she might not be practicing what she preaches throughout 'All of Me'. And that's a real shame, as it would be a sad state of affairs to let this genuine talent go to waste.
Recommended Tracks: Speak Ya Mind, Do My Thing & Break My Heart.