Esthero emerges from her seven-year slumber in a new world. Gone is the trip-hop domination, the big-beat phenomenon, the bright future for dance music. The Canadian-born musician calls for “a musical revolution” on Wikked Lil’ Girls but put a watermark on the press copies that will identify anyone who leaks it, unaware of the irony. (It didn’t work; Wikked Lil’ Girls is readily available on the Internet). The revolution has already begun, and Esthero clearly didn’t get the memo. More important, she seems to be lost among her new surroundings, pulling in old styles and dated arrangements to seemingly express her dissatisfaction and confusion with where music is going.
Wikked Lil’ Grrrls is the follow-up to 1998’s Breath from Another, though “Esthero” at the time was both the lead singer and the name of the duo comprised of Esthero and Doc (a.k.a. Martin McKinney), her engineer/producer who has all but been erased in the official history. Now it is just Esthero and some very famous friends (Andre 3000, Sean Lennon, and Cee-Lo among them). The debut’s trip-hop sounds of sultry delivery and spacey sampling put it in the same category as Portishead and Massive Attack, though Esthero has never been that dark (or that revolutionary, for that matter), but her new direction separates her from her past associations.
Wikked Lil’ Grrrls almost completely disregards its predecessor’s genre, but certain stylistic choices remain: the singer is still horn-biased, and her melancholy vocals haven’t changed much. But the album is so scattered that it’s difficult to feel a statement. When big-band arrangements found on “If tha Mood” and “Melancholy Melody” bump up against more conventional Esthero sounds on “Bad Boy Clyde” and “Blanket Me in You,” competence becomes confusion; the throwaway phone-message poetry skits certainly don’t help matters.
It’s no surprise that the album was finished for more than a year before its release; it’s not an easy album to market, and its refusal to contribute to current musical trends is far from time-sensitive. But after such a long build-up to what should have been the next step forward in a promising artist’s career, Wikked Lil’ Grrrls wasn’t worth the wait.