Even though it's 10 years old, Estelle's "American Boy" is still on high rotation: Just listen out for it at the supermarket, bar, or your local karaoke joint. (Not to mention your personal playlists.) Bouncy, optimistic, and irresistible, the song features vocals from real American boy Kanye West, hit #1 in the UK, scored Grammys for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Song of the Year, and took away four awards at the MTV VMAs, including Video of the Year.
ELLE.com asked Estelle about her classic paean to hotties, meeting Kanye West at a chicken restaurant, and the time she heard a band of 70-year-old Italians playing "American Boy."
Estelle turned hot guys into a hit song.
I was in Miami, finishing my very first US release. We put the record out and John Legend was like, "What do you want to write about?" I said, "Well, you know, I've been having a good time out here. You don't really have a huge amount of Cuban, Puerto Ricans, Dominican, Spanish men in the UK.'" They were hot! I'll say that categorically. They were fine. They were very fine. I was just like, "This is great." That was me just having a good time looking at these guys on the beach and enjoying my life. That was it!
Estelle met Kanye West and John Legend at a chicken restaurant.
I met him at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in L.A. He was sitting there on his phone. I did a thank you prayer to God because I'd been dying to meet him. I said, "You know, I'm a big fan, but I do want to meet John Legend" [who was signed to West's G.O.O.D. Music label]. I love John's voice—especially on a record he had called "Used to Love U," the original demo on the mix tape. And I was like, I have to work with this guy. He's incredible. I asked him to meet John and the rest is history, you know?
Him and John were sitting down eating, so he said, "Come to the studio later after we finish eating. We're in the middle of a record." I was like, "Cool."
John Legend gives sexy musical advice.
Me and John wrote the lyrics together. I don't know how to explain it other than sounding corny, like, "Oh, it's poetry"—it's not really. I come to it from another standpoint; I essentially write raps that are turned into song. John comes in as a traditional songwriter, and he's an English major too. He would edit whatever I'd written and say things like, "Oh, you can say that sexy" or "Try this line instead."
We both have a really good grasp of the English language and we knew how to make it simple. We'd been recording for two years prior to that, so it wasn't a hard process. The words felt good coming out my mouth and they sounded good, so we just kept going with it. It took a couple hours—the good ones don't take long.
That often misheard line says "I'll show you to my bredrin"—not "my bedroom."
"My bredrin" is something that I call my friends to this day. It's West Indian/English slang for "friends." I used "bredrin" because it was a two-syllable word—it's something I would actually say, and "friends" is just one.
I'm a rapper first. This is how I speak, these are the things that come out of my mouth on a regular day. This is how I write, this is the kind of person I am. This is the kind of artist I am. I'm not gonna simplify things to the point where you lose all identity and all culture for the sake of making it okay for people to understand. As long as it feels and sounds sexy, you're good. As long as it feels and it sounds good coming out your mouth, it is what it is, you know?
Getting Kanye involved was a cinch.
He came and just did it. He was very gung ho, supporting John and signing me in the first place. He was like, "Yeah. You should work with her. I think she's great. I think you guys can make some good shit." It went from there.
All those hot guys in the video came from a cattle call.
We brought guys in. We called all our friends and all the people that I admired in New York and in London, and told them, "Come be in it." And they were like "What?" All my guy friends that are in it now are like, "Yo, I can't believe me you had me in the video mix."
Somewhere in Capri, there's a village band who only know one song: "American Boy."
I knew that people loved it. I felt that from every time I played it. I loved it. It would be that reaction from the executives down to regular people, like, "I don't know what this is but I feel like I know it." But the way it just went through the roof, that was unexpected.
I think it hit me when I went to Capri. This little village band knew that song and that song only. They just kept playing it over and over and over, for a whole day. They were like 70-year-old Italian men playing "American Boy." It just freaked me out. I thought it was hilarious.
I hear it in the club. It's crazy. I hear it in the club. I hear it in lounges. I hear it in bars. I hear it in restaurants. I hear it everywhere I go, and I'm grateful.
After the song came out, Estelle met her own real-life American Boy.
My life is an open book. All of my albums. They're on all the albums. I live true to my work. That's what takes me so long. Everyone's like "Where did you go?" And "How come it takes you so long?"
There are definite times when my team look at me like "How did you know?" And I'm like "I don't know. My instinct. Something told me." I do believe in the power of your words and writing things down and manifestation. My mum, my family, my friends, they all look at me like, "You're a little special with that." I don't know. I've always been like this.
Her musical style has become "more honest."
This record is the first time I've focused on a genre. I've gone in one particular direction and stayed there—where every other album is a little bit of reggae, a little of soul, a little bit of R&B, a little bit of hip hop, a little bit of doo-wop, this is more focused on reggae, R&B, and Soca. It still feels good, it still sounds like me.
The story is the story of my parents—this is the era that they grew up in and that they met in, that they had me and my sisters to. Lovers rock was the prevalent style of music back in the '80s in the UK, which is kind of like a merge of R&B and reggae. There were huge Lovers rock stars that my family had the distinct honor of working with. I remember seeing them around when I was a kid, just regular-degular.