This is unfortunate timing for Ester Dean to launch her solo career. The songwriter’s voice is pitched dead center between two artists. The first is frequent collaborator Rihanna, but attempting to time your nascent solo career around an ebb in Rihanna’s career would be like attempting to time it around the fall of the United States. The other is Nicki Minaj when she sings, which is increasingly synonymous with “Nicki Minaj.”
Not that either is jacking either’s territory; “Super Bass” was super thanks in part to Dean’s vocals–”custom-made for summer,” one critic writes–and Minaj contributes a guest verse (as she does) to “Gimme Money,” Dean’s latest attempt at a solo breakout. Now, back up. Let’s process what we’ve just learned in a different way: up-and-coming, somewhat hard-edged R&B singer records a song with a Nicki Minaj verse. You can imagine what it sounds like, right? Do that, then see how close you came:
“Gimme Money” sounds like the radio sounds. It’s got the synths that box-step their way up and down the scale, it’s got snares twitching before every new section, and it’s got the background vocals that double as extra hooks. The track muffles itself and fades back in during the verses, and everything slams itself against the speaker during the chorus. It’s a track so foolproof that anyone, whether Ester Dean or Rihanna or Nicki Minaj or a sine wave generator or a sufficiently lively plant could sound great on it given the right processing.
None of this, though, describes Ester Dean’s contributions. Or rather, it exactly describes Ester Dean’s contributions, because she’s shaped this sound as much as or more than anyone. But they’re less suited to breaking her out as a performer in her own right than checking her track onto the radio, her vocals crouched inside the production like a stowaway. (Nicki’s verse, for what it’s worth, is so short and so subdued that it’s not worth further mention.) In Dean’s favor, she’s brassier and raspier than “Gimme Money” calls for; the most interesting parts of “Gimme Money” are when her voice scrapes against the track enough to thin out or even poke holes through it. (Which is also 100% planned and possibly actually focus-grouped; nevertheless, the most interesting.) This goes for the lyrics as well; Dean’s songwriting training means she probably sleep-writes killer parallelisms like “you give me money [repeat until the earworm awakens] but I’d rather have your time,” but every so often–OK, primarily on Nicki’s verse and the one line “I bought the new crib, keep the rent(,)boy” something promising will creep in.
There are basically two questions here. One, will this hit radio? There doesn’t seem to be anything, personnel- or sound-related, to stop it. Two, will something interesting come out of Dean’s could-be-a-career? Possibly. “Gimme Money” is rote heading toward interesting, but that’s a better place to be than–name your own names–the opposite.