Estelle’s fifth studio album, Lovers Rock, both bottles the ardor of the eponymous reggae style and testifies to the force of a deep and resilient love. Honoring the tradition of genre masters Louisa Mark and Janet Kay, the British singer-songwriter draws inspiration from very personal source material: her parents’ decades-long romance, which spans their 20-year split, eventual reunion, and ultimate marriage when Estelle was 33.
Estelle’s enlists an array of Jamaican and Jamaican-American artists like Tarrus Riley, Kranium, and Konshens on Lovers Rock, but the album shifts fluidly between R&B and dancehall as well. Amid this fusion, Estelle sounds weightless and ebullient: Her silky vocal curls around warm soca rhythms and a lively calypso reprise on the rollicking “Ain’t Yo Bitch,” exuding a kind of unadulterated joy that was missing from her earlier star-studded work.
In mapping out the history of her parent’s romance, Estelle doesn’t shy away from depicting the extremes. Whether addressing a double-crossing lover or her father, Estelle refuses to make light of the ills of love. “Word to my mama/You gon’ get what you deserve,” she proclaims on “Karma.” True to its name, though, the greater part of Lovers Rock celebrates the euphoria of loving someone fearlessly. The heartbreaking “Sweetly” captures the lack of control one can sometimes feel in a relationship. Estelle is unguarded, delivering the ambiguities of having no choice but to leave a lover: “Even though it makes me sad, I can leave you so sweetly.”
On “Queen,” Estelle lampoons men who mistreat their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters; backed by a plaintive piano and soft violin, she wields a mighty sword of social critique. On past releases, Estelle seemed to sacrifice some authenticity in favor of making chart hits, and there are hints of that impulse here: Album closer “Good for Us” is so sedately content it sounds almost like a Colbie Callait B-side, with lyrics like “Together we’re so much better” feeling like little more than sweet nothings. But she seems utterly at home in her skin when she embraces the insurgent spirit of reggae.