Thursday, June 17, 2010

Estelle Featuring Kanye West - "American Boy"

Could this really be? A modern day R&B song that doesn't make me feel like I need to take a long, cold shower after listening to it? Soothing minor key melody, intelligent lyrics - am I dreaming? No, I'm listening to Estelle's "American Boy."

The highest compliment I can pay "American Boy" is that when I first heard it, I thought I'd actually heard it before. "Hmm, that's interesting, an old R&B song from the '70s that I don't immediately recognize." I overheard it again at the mall and I stopped and concentrated on the lyrics so that I could try to download the song later. "Ah, it's probably called 'American Boy'." I figured it was at least a cover, or built around an old R&B sample. According to Wikipedia "the song uses samples from 'Impatient' from's 2007 album Songs About Girls as well as '& Down' by Boys Noize." Neither of those songs appear to be old. Well I'll be damned. Somebody actually came up with a good hook that flows with an effortless grace and they didn't just lift it from some song that was a hit 30 years ago. It reminds me more of something you'd hear in a vintage Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool & The Gang single. So it makes you wonder: is it really that hard, people?

Well OK, I thought, the melody's good but that probably means the lyrics really stink. Not so fast. There's only one swear word in the entire song. The naughtiest sexual reference is actually quite subtle: "I like the way he's speaking, his confidence is peaking/Don't like his baggy jeans but I'm a like what's underneath them." Maybe it's the British touch. In conjunction with the music, the lyrics are a throwback to a classier style of R&B. They exude romance, and I don't just mean in the "boy/girl" sense, but in the "promise of being young and dressing up and going out on the town for an evening in New York City" sense. It invokes the same spirit as Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out":
Can we get away this weekend?
Take me to Broadway
Let's go shopping maybe then we'll go to a café
Let's go on the subway
Take me to your hood
I never been to Brooklyn and I'd like to see what's good
Dressed in all your fancy clothes
Sneaker's looking fresh to death, I'm loving those Shell Toes
Walking that walk
Talk that slick talk
I'm liking this American Boy

Take me on a trip, I'd like to go some day
Take me to New York, I'd love to see LA
I really want to come kick it with you
You'll be my American Boy
It makes visiting New York or LA honestly sound exciting, and when was the last time you could say that? When she switches it around and gives a shout-out to "San Francisco Bay" it makes me feel like I live in some exotic, happening holiday locale. But instead of coming off as hedonistic, the vibe is almost bittersweet. It's as if Estelle just wants to hold on to this feeling of intangible possibility forever, even though she knows that one day it will pass.

Kanye West is not a rapper I find very impressive, but here at least he makes me laugh, and if his presence might have helped the song become a bigger hit, then fine. Unlike Estelle, who exudes charm and mystery, Kanye exudes ego and sleaze, although he does seem to be at least slightly self-aware. I might summarize his main verse as follows: "Hey Estelle, I know you think I'm just a shallow American who's obsessed with wearing fancy designer clothing, but that's what my audience expects of me, and you've got to give the people what they want, right?" Methinks the Kayne doth protest too much.


Herr Zrbo said...

I knew this song had Kanye in it but I always thought the girl singing was Fergie, which always turned me away from the song since she's purely a fame whore. I guess it's a nice song but it's NOT what I expected from you LE>

Little Earl said...

Yes, sometimes I can even surprise myself.

siobhan toulouse lafave said...

I don't know, I have the same feeling as your initial hunch that it has heavily borrowed from a 70's song that I can almost hear, but just can't place. I'll get back to you when I find it. I am determined.