After a momentary blip in the last decade, women in R&B have been making their long-awaited return to the charts. Following a fruitful ’90s that brought in the success of powerhouses like Mariah Carey and Lauryn Hill, the prevalence of new artists began to wane in the late aughts into recent years. SZA, Janelle Monáe and Jorja Smith have received widespread critical acclaim for their works, but their commercial success wasn’t up to par. It’s for this reason Ella Mai’s newfound success with sleeper hit “Boo’d Up” came as a surprise, but not necessarily a shock: It’s been expected for some time now.
The song is nothing new: a throwback-esque jam that harkens back to the twinkly choruses and saccharine lyrics that have all been heard before. “Ooh, now I’ll never get over you until I find something new / That get me high like you do.” But the star ascends at a time infatuated with all things ’90s — it’s as nostalgic as comfort food. Her music may not be as sonically complex or compelling as those of her peers, but it’s an earworm catchy enough to get stuck in the heads of tweens and old-school rockers alike. Her debut eponymous album Ella Mai is no different.
The album, like Mai’s past EPs, is produced by none other than the infamous club anthem churner himself, DJ Mustard. No “Mustard on that beat, ho” signature this time around, but the album is full of others: trap-flirting beats, simplistic synth-bass openings, electronic snaps and claps, plinking keyboards. This is by no means a bad thing; it makes for the airy, finger-snapping appeal the album strives for. There are points, however, where the sound feels monotonous. “Everything,” a slow jam featuring John Legend, is a prominent example: the trap influenced chorus ill-fitting against Mai and Legend’s crooning and the adoring lyricism.
That being said, the album offers its intricacies elsewhere. The leading track, “Emotion,” takes charge in framing the album around an acrostic poem for Mai’s name via spoken word skits that last about 10 seconds every two to three tracks. The move leans juvenile but provides a deft showcase of Mai’s British accent, emotive lyricism and views on romance. Other points where Mai shines on the album include “Sauce,” her words scathing and vivid, informing her partner “You gotta level up if you want this (Stop) / Chewin’ with your mouth wide open.” The more vulnerable “Trip” is also worth mentioning, as she confesses “I put my feelings on safety / So I don’t go shootin’ where your heart be.”
Though centered on the idea of romantic love, Mai provides the story and personality that listeners have been waiting for since “Boo’d Up.” “Shot Clock” exudes confidence in its detailing of a confrontation between Mai and her lover, livid but assured as she demands to know whether or not what they have is serious. The doo-wop influence paired with an interpolation of Drake’s “Legend” heighten the already confrontational and sarcastic tone of the song. “Own It” adds a raunchy and fun element to the album. Mai eschews the more naïve air she paints for herself in other tracks by tapping into her more sensual side, her vocal range deeper amid the sampled Adina Howard. Conversely, bonus track “Naked” carries immense emotional weight as it explores experiences beyond the physical, Mai insecure as to whether or not she can convey her truest self to another. The track stands as the album’s sole slow song, stripped-down and strummed on an acoustic guitar.
By no means groundbreaking, Ella Mai provides a quick fix of nostalgia for the R&B sound many of us grew up to. If you’re a fan of some of the newer sounds surfacing onto the R&B scene, perhaps this album isn’t for you. That being said, the charming and upbeat nature of Ella Mai is undeniable; she is bound for success that goes beyond capitalizing as a one-hit-wonder.