Though you might not know her name, Canadian singer-songwriter Esthero has made an indelible imprint on the pop music landscape in recent years. Her unique fusion of pop, trip-hop, jazz, and Brazilian bossa nova and samba—first employed with the help of producer/engineer Martin McKinney on their 1998 debut Breath From Another—was co-opted a few years later by Nelly Furtado, who brought the sound to the fore with the aid of production team Track & Field. (Esthero was even featured on “I Feel You,” a track that was ultimately excised from Furtado’s Whoa, Nelly!) While Esthero, now bearing the banner of her name as a solo artist, might strike listeners as a Nelly copycat, her long-in-the-works sophomore effort, Wikked Lil’ Grrrls, displays the kind of versatility Furtado herself proudly exhibited on last year’s sadly overlooked Folklore and establishes her as the progenitor of what could be called electro-ethno-pop.
“Let’s start a musical revolution,” Esthero declares on Grrrls’ opening track. It’s admittedly a bold statement, and one that will no doubt engender sighs of disappointment following an initial spin of the record, but the punkest of punks have always been punk in spirit, not just style. Grrrls is a pop album—there’s no question about that—but while it sports some unabashedly sugary love ballads, there’s not one that submits to today’s pop standards. Even as its title dares to usurp the English language (I think Prince has forever de-punked that gesture), “We R In Need Of A Musical ReVoLuTion” justly lambastes radio for its repetitive playlists and MTV for what they’re now calling the “Big 10” (“I’m so sick and tired of the shit on the radio…No matter where I go I see Ashanti in the video”) as well as hip-hop’s tolerance for pariahs like R. Kelly (“A grown-ass man can videotape a little girl/But we still see his mug up on our video screens”). (The jury’s out on how she feels about Michael Jackson.)
At times Grrrls suffers from a bout of too-much-all-at-once and it struggles to solidify its subject’s musical identity, flipping like a radio station dial through genres as disparate as rock, hip-hop, spoken word, and big band—but all executed rather well, I might add. The album’s more topical, socially-conscious tracks are balanced pretty evenly with songs about love (the poignant R&B track “Gone,” featuring Cee-Lo Green of Goodie Mob, the bouncy, carefree “Everyday Is A Holiday With You,” featuring Sean Lennon, the epic electronic ballad “My Torture,” with its delay-heavy beats and pulsating climax) and sex (the sassy title track and the horny—and horn-y—“If Tha Mood,” which features such poeticisms as “She won’t fuck you like I did/She’s not into that wild shit”), but it’s Esthero’s overriding sense of self that binds Grrrls’ 17 tracks together. She’s unlikely to “start a musical revolution” or even replace “Britney on the video screen,” but her music will undoubtedly be a prize for any pop fan that finds it.