Estelle wants listeners to know she's not just the happy-go-lucky Londoner many first met on 2008's "American Boy," her cheery hit single with Kanye West.
"The Life," the opening track to "All Of Me" (her first album in nearly four years, due out Tuesday), finds the 32-year-old Grammy nominee rapping in her heavy accent, "Tiny with a temper, I'm-a get it till I pass out."
She's not kidding about the temper. "All of Me" isn't a break-up album per se, but some of its more emotionally draining tracks were written as Estelle's three-year relationship crumbled. She brought the strains of her personal life into the recording booth, even if it meant letting producers and the engineer see her tears.
"I'm not a crier. But I was upset," Estelle said recently from her tour bus. She's headlining the BET Music Matters Tour, which stops Sunday at Baltimore Soundstage. "I poured my heart out, and the result was a lot more emotional."
The album's first single is "Thank You," a song written by Akon that could have been taken from Estelle's journal. The video is an appropriately dark affair, with the singer confronting a boyfriend with text messages from another woman. There are flashbacks to happier times, but the message is clear: Do Estelle wrong, and she's walking out on you. The chorus ends with "I thank you for making me a woman."
"It means that I thank you for making me man up," she said, before quickly correcting herself to say "woman up." "[I wondered], 'Was I in a relationship to prove people wrong just because people told me not to be?' But I realized, 'You make me sad. You have to go.' Simple as that."
Two weeks after recording "Thank You," Estelle and her boyfriend, a keyboard player, broke up. She said touring for the past eight months has been her therapy, and she is eager to focus on promoting and performing her new music.
"I'm just excited that I get to put out the music I love versus music just for the sake of it," she said. "It touches peoples' lives. The same way Whitney [Houston] is my Whitney, people say, 'You're my Estelle.' I don't take it lightly."
It's no surprise Houston is on the singer's mind. As Estelle hosted a pre-Grammy party in Los Angeles, a friend texted her the news of Houston's death. "I told her, 'I'm not hearing it until they show me a body. I don't believe it,'" she said.
"She was one of our gold standards," Estelle said. "She was one of the first to cross over with real dance music. I'm still upset."
A controversial artist who made recent headlines is featured on "All Of Me." Chris Brown, along with Trey Songz, shows up on the upbeat swag session "International (Serious)." Estelle said she had wanted to work with Brown before his domestic abuse charge against Rihanna.
"I refuse to judge people. I've made a [ton] of mistakes myself," she said. "I just recognize the guy as an incredible talent. And he's always been cool to me."
Like a handful of the songs on "All of Me," "International (Serious)" has single potential, but can it live up to the success of "American Boy"? Estelle doesn't seem to care either way.
"I've stopped chasing 'American Boy.' I'm not chasing anything," she said. "It was what it was. For me, I just put out what I love. And there's a lot more to come."
Does that mean we won't have to wait until 2016 for her fourth album?
"Absolutely not. There's so much happening in my life," Estelle said, sounding relieved. "I'm writing so much music. I want to have another album out by the end of the year."
If you go
Estelle performs Sunday at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place. Stacy Barthe, Elle Varner and Luke James also perform. Doors open at 6 p.m. $26. Call 410-244-0057 or go to baltimoresoundstage.com.