True Romance finds one-time R&B It girl Estelle jumping record labels for the third time in 10 years, to her own boutique New London Records. Written after ending a four-year relationship, it also puts a fresh spin on the typical breakup album, representing a decisive end to not only a love affair, but to a decade of trying to turn the success of her Grammy-winning single, “American Boy,” into a viable mainstream career. Singing big string-laden power ballads, flexing her often-underutilized rap cadence over patient house grooves, and unapologetically indulging her distinctive genre tastes, True Romance largely proves that Estelle’s talents were being too encumbered by the demands of record execs and producer John Legend, delivering a fleet 45 minutes of music that sounds more true to her West London upbringing.
Lead single “Conqueror” is a self-empowerment anthem not unlike Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” but trading in more platitudinous sloganeering (“I’d rather stand tall/Than Live on my knees”). It’s elevated by Estelle’s vocal control, particularly in the lower registers, but the singer commands her gifts much more effectively when allowed to let loose on the album’s frankly blacker strains of music. “Something Good/Devotion (Passion Interlude)” makes up for its unwieldy title with a six-minute thrum of house piano, snapping percussion, and gloriously tinny-sounding horn charts. Estelle’s vocal struts up and down the scales, grunting and digging deep into the “good” of the chorus. “Time Share (Suite 509)” is a trap ballad constructed from the sounds of a winding clock, its steamy lyrics recounting a hotel hook-up first from the woman’s perspective, then appending an extended spoken-word section from an uncredited male artist to tell the other side. Both of these are more sexually provocative, and titillating, than the explicit “Make Her Say (Beat It Up).” A seemingly deliberate flip of the Ying Yang Twin’s “Wait (The Whisper Song),” the track sadly can’t match the dexterity or imagination of its source—and it loses yet more sexual momentum with a robotic chorus that drones interminably even for a song that’s less than three minutes.
While the first half of True Romance tends to stick to genres that, whether intentionally or not, neatly fit the quiet-storm trend of contemporary R&B (keeping snail-paced company with Tinashe’s Aquarius, if not the weirder FKA twigs’s LP1), the second half starts fiddling with that formula. The J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League-produced “Silly Girls” immediately leaps out from the rest of the album, with its pristine chipmunk-soul sample of Ace Spectrum’s “I Don’t Want to Play Around” and Estelle’s dramatic, skyrocketing vocal slots well within that tradition of fetishized ’70s soul-ballad schlock. The sunny reggae jam “She Will Love” is even more niche, resembling the kind of light, cheap-sounding pop you find surfing blogs devoted to contemporary Senegalese or Grenadian music (incidentally, the two countries where Estelle’s mother and father are from, respectively). It’s these songs, along with the delicate piano ballad “All That Matters,” a serene acceptance of her experiences with love (and, perhaps, her career), that enforce the sense that True Romance is a personal body of work, an uncompromised expression of what defines Estelle as an artist—which is neither the man she’s over, nor the industry that might be over her.