Mabel McVey surveys the sold-out Manchester Ritz reflecting every word of her low-slung R&B track ‘Thinking Of You’ back at her. “We’re calling this tour These Are The Best Times,” enthuses the 22-year-old. “Because I want to remind everyone – including myself – that what’s happening right now is the shit.”
Since she emerged in 2015, she’s been tipped yearly to ascend to pop’s premier league– you sense she’s playing a Dua Lipa-style long-game. Last year’s calling-card hit, the Kojo Funds-assisted ‘Finders Keepers’ peaked at number 8 and since then, she’s amassed three Top 20 singles. Her time supporting Harry Styles on tour has paid dividends – she easily treats a 1,500-capacity venue like it’s a hanger-like arena. The night practically begs for a glitter canon.
Striding onstage dressed in a chic blue tracksuit, and flanked by two body-popping backing dancers, she launches into anti-fuckboy salvo ‘One Shot’, a fizzing Jägerbomb of a track which is basically ‘Finders Keepers’ with a spray-job (if it ain’t broke…). Playing off the back of this year’s re-released expanded edition of her ‘Ivy To Roses’ mixtape, she vacillates from solid and safe club-ready co-signs like Jax Jones’ trop-house bop ‘Ring Ring’ and the more laid-back nostalgic ‘90s grooves of ‘Come Over’ – which couldn’t evoke the scrub-denouncing likes of TLC more without her placing a Durex condom over one eye.
Music is in Mabel’s DNA: her mother is Neneh Cherry and her father is Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey (keeping it in the family firm, many of her tracks are co-written by her half-brother Marlon Roudette). As a kid, she was in the studio when the Sugababes recorded their debut ‘One Touch’. Some of that might have seeped into her subconscious because the soulful and sparse likes of ‘Low Key’ is what you’d hope Mutya, Keisha, and Siobhan would come back with if they ever actually release their overdue album (After the apocalypse, the only survivors are going to be Keisha Buchanan defiantly insisting to the cockroaches that the MKS record is “due out soon”).
What elevates Mabel above a crowded field of British R&B-singers that claim Lauryn Hill as a loadstar is her silken voice and way with a gangbusters- chorus. “Let’s see my ladies scream!”, she implores of the predominantly female audience, before launching into her trip-hop first release ‘Know Me Better’, and drips honey over each syllable of a cover of the Ne-Yo ballad ‘So Sick’. The pace is picked up for two new bangers – ‘Bad Behaviour’ (“My favourite song to play live,” she declares) and ‘Don’t Call Me Up’ – with her backing crew inexplicably twirling plastic baseball bats around like a PG-rated version of Clockwork Orange.
Ultraviolence out of the way, perhaps the most affecting new number she plays is the soul-baring ‘Ok’. “This is about something special,” she explains. “It’s about something called anxiety” – she has been open about battling it since childhood. “And I think it’s important that we talk about it because we don’t talk about it enough, right? So here’s the deal: everybody has good days and everybody has bad days. And I just think it’s important to be ok with the bad days.” Stripped back, it’s a poignant account of sitting ‘alone in the room and the tears start to pour’ – and continues the laudable late-‘10s trend of pop candidly addressing mental health in lyrics.
She climaxes her all-to-brief 45-minute set – leaving the throng chanting ‘We want more!’ – with the imperious Not3s team-up ‘Fine Line’ and a joyous ‘Finders Keepers’. Truly, the shit.
Thinking Of You
Know Me Better
Don’t Call Me Up