Three years ago, a DM changed Ella Mai’s life. While the now 23-year-old was studying Music at university and working in retail, she was also posting fifteen 15-second covers on Instagram. She never thought that these clips could be her big break. Yet one of these videos caught the attention of DJ Mustard (the Californian production mastermind behind hits for Ty Dolla Sign, T.I. and Big Sean). After some to-ing and fro-ing, and recording sessions in New York, Mustard signed Mai to his label, and they’ve been working together ever since.
And it’s been a fruitful partnership. Mai has released a string of EPs, each packed with slinky R&B dominated by poignant lyrics, emotive storytelling and earworm choruses. And then there was that accolade: in May this year, Mai became the first UK artist to top the US R&B chart in 26 years (the only time this has happened in Mai’s lifetime) with ‘Boo’d Up’, a sultry ode to falling head over heels. After much American airplay, the track won Mai an army of celebrity fans, including Nicki Minaj and Quavo; the pair later released an official remix of the tune.
This overnight success could have been brought unthinkable pressure to other stars, causing them to remain on the shelf as a one-hit wonder. For Mai, it has been catalyst for further success. On her brilliant self-titled debut, she doesn’t even come close to crashing and burning.
Opening with the spoken-word track ‘Emotion’, Mai boldly launches into a dictionary definition (“E, emotion /A natural, instinctive state-of-mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood or relationship with others / A rollercoaster”). These verbal interludes permeate the record, with the words chosen eventually spelling out her own name. It could be a cheap trick, but in this case ties the record together into one coherent entity. Really, though, it’s what comes between these words that truly shines.
There’s ‘Dangerous’, a catchy slice of sizzling R&B, which sees Mai confidently asserting her love for a boy she can’t believe fell for her (“‘Cause boys like you don’t usually fall for the girls like me”), and the swaggering ‘Sauce’, on which she boasts she has “too much sauce” for men to handle. Then there are the collaborations, which see Mai holding her own alongside industry heavyweights such as John Legend and Californian’s R&B singer H.E.R. Throughout, there are musical throwbacks to the R&B of the ’90s and early noughties, which Mai loved growing up – yet they’re given a modern update, with crunchy synths and bubbling beats.
It’s an impossibly confident debut, filled with slick production and choruses that’ll be caught in your head for weeks at a time. What could have been a scrappy attempt to capitalise on the success of ‘Boo’d Up’ is instead a stellar collection of R&B jams. Confident, relevant and full of gorgeous instrumentation, Ella Mai’s debut proves that she is more than worth the hype.