Estelle on “American Boy”, Working with Kanye and the rap ‘Gavin & Stacey’
In 2008, chants of “yes we can” could be heard echoing across the United States as the country prepared to elect its first black president. The electoral cycle has sparked deep optimism among many, despite the looming cloud of a worsening economic crash.
For some, the soundtrack for this monumental year was “American Boy.”
The duo, performed by West London singer-songwriter Estelle and rap superstar Kanye West, was released in March 2008 as a second single from Estelle’s second album, Shine. With a pounding beat and verses filled with American to British cultural references, the song portrays a romance between a British native and her flashy American admirer. He arrived in a musical landscape dominated by the feature films of Timbaland, the electro-pop debuts of Lady Gaga and during the advent of the digital takeover of the industry. ITunes Music Sales had increased by 27% in the United States compared to the previous year.
It didn’t take long for “American Boy” to achieve international success, reaching No. 1 in the Official UK Singles Chart and the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. A year later, in 2009, the track had become the 25th best-selling downloaded song of all time in the United Kingdom, Telegraph reported.
There was however a slight bump in the road when “American Boy” was temporarily removed from iTunes by Warner Records. Through NME, the decision was taken to encourage the purchase of physical copies. After a dramatic drop in sales and chart position, it was subsequently reversed.
The success of “American Boy” in the charts also aligned with a largely positive critical response. A Comment from Digital Spy praised the song’s “winning chorus and sensual, super-elegant production”; accolades, including a Grammy Award for the best rap / sung collaboration followed.
Today, the legacy of “American Boy” can be felt far beyond its heyday of the late 2000s. The song has seen pop culture resurgences via James Corden and Sheridan Smith Gavin and Stacey interpretation, and multiple viral trends TikTok, including a Fornite parody this is quickly approaching 25 million Youtube views at the time of writing.
To learn more about the curation of “American Boy,” I spoke to Estelle – who recently became the host of Apple Music Hits’ The Estelle lounge – which tells the story of how the track came to be in the studio, what it was like working with Kanye West, and much more.
On the birth of “American Boy”
London-born Estelle inspired Miami Beaches in the studio, and together with Grammy Award-winning artist John Legend, one of the most successful songs of the digital age was in the works.
“American Boy” was born when I was in Miami. I was there recording with my team at the time. One day I went to the beach with my daughter at home, and I admired all these Cuban men because I had never seen anything like it. They were all so beautiful to me [Laughs]. So I had a together time with these guys, just talking and flirting, I didn’t care because I was going back to NYC.
So the next day I’m in the studio and John [Legend] ask me: “What have you done? What did you write about? So I said to him, “Looking at all these adorable American boys.” Then he looked at me and said, “Well, let’s write about it then.” We literally started writing the song at that point, and I was discussing what I liked and what I didn’t like about Americans.
“I don’t like the way you wear jeans,” I said to John at one point. Because in the mid-2000s, the fashion in London was skinny jeans before skinny jeans, right? This is how we came up with “don’t like his baggy jeans” later. In a first studio session with myself, John Legend and will.i.am, we played the beat. As soon as I heard it, I said, “This is it, it sounds like home, it sounds like London.” Will wasn’t sure at first, he told me, “I don’t like that for you,” and I thought he was out of his mind. But, in the end, we agreed to continue writing and recording it.
About writing and recording “American Boy”
John started to write and he laid down the melody for the hook. He understood that I was hugely influenced by jazz music, so soon he realized that I was just going to sink into the song like it was a jazz record. I also consider the writing to fill the lines of a coloring book. I do this with lyrics, so we started the song with “hi, nice to meet you” and then we figured out how to fill in the gaps. So that’s how we got to “hey, sisters, it’s really nice to meet you” – and then we moved on to creating the full track story.
Later we landed on the lyrics, “I just met that five foot seven guy” because that was rhyming with the melody, and everyone in the room was like, “You realize John is five foot seven, n ‘ is this not?” [Laughs]. At one point, we also struggled to finish the “don’t like baggy jeans” lyrics. We were brainstorming, and a friend who was in the studio suggested “but I’m like what’s below”. It was cheeky, so I said let’s go. We had to give it 1%.
Then we took all the sessions to Circle House Studios in Miami, and I ended up recording the vocals myself. I knew my voice had to be light and the happiest it could be, so I started to channel Peggy off. Hi-de-Hi! because she used to seem so wacky and ridiculously happy all the time. Which was great because at the time I was also really happy. I was in Miami living my whole dream and believe the energy comes through music.
On working with Kanye
We went through all of the different MCs and rappers thinking about a potential feature of the song – it always came back to Kanye. People would say to me, “It’s going to sink on it. He’s going to say something wild.
I first met him in 2003 and knew him already, so it wasn’t weird. Eventually, he agreed in principle to be on the record, but it took him a year to do so. When he arrived to start recording he had just returned from London which was perfect. He had all the lingo. However, he asked me what people drink in London. I told him, “Not Gray Goose, everyone drinks Ribena.” I think he might have thought it was a special drink [Laughs].
In the studio, he just came in and created a freestyle. He did it line for line and bar for bar. Then we edited what we needed to edit and kept the original voice. It didn’t take too long. But at the end of the session, I was so happy. We were all therefore excited because the song sounded so good. Later that same day we all went to a club, I was in the middle of the dance floor because they weren’t giving me a VIP that night. But, of course, Kanye was in the VIP section. It was hilarious. I had just been in the studio with him like an hour before. It was wild.
On the video clip
With “American Boy” I didn’t really have an idea for the video at first, I just knew I wanted it to be fun and represent what we were doing in the UK dance business. The director wanted a lot of lights and a disco theme, and I was like, “No, none of that. It’ll be clean. You’re gonna see all the fashion, you’re gonna see all the boys.
I wanted the video to be sexy and to feel like I was posing on the pages of a magazine. I also wanted it to look like abstract art and be black and white with shadows. I wanted it to be expressive, you know?
The video was shocking for the time. I was that fashionable black girl dressed new and free. I didn’t fit the stereotype of what I should have looked like and who I should have been. I wasn’t hiding in anyone’s shadow, my face was bright as day for everyone to see, and my complexion was there. There was no hiding place.
On the legacy of “American Boy”
I thought the song was going to be successful, but I had no idea I was going to do all of it. I just put together a full rewards firm from that time, and I was like, fuck it. There are young kids who tell me they like “American Boy,” and I’m like, “It’s crazy, you’re seven. How do you know this record? Turns out their mom used to play it in the car, or they heard it on TikTok. People don’t forget the record and I love it. It’s an eternal record, and I’m grateful to have at least one.
I remember the song was on Gavin and Stacey and it was wild. I actually met James Corden years later when I went on his show. He was so excited and it was lovely to meet him because I remember the Gavin and Stacey version. People always refer to that moment, but also refer to the song in different ways. There’s a resurgence every year – a few years ago the kids at TikTok were doing a slowed-down version of the song. Then a remixed version got really big just like the Fortnite version.
That’s nice to look at. I will never complain. I love that everyone in all walks of life, from your aunt to your mom, and even your smallest cousin, is going to listen to my music. I’m with it, it’s good.