UK throwback R&B artist and signee to DJ Mustard’s label Ella Mai explodes onto the scene with her debut self-titled studio album, after breaking through in a big way with the unlikely success of excellent single “Boo’d Up” – which has what is easily the cleverest flip of a lyric this year had to offer. While she might not reach the heights of her singles, Mai offers a full album of equally smooth vocal moments, navigating easily through vocal runs and DJ Mustard’s production offering up the classic R&B percussion and other sounds of yesteryear. It’s easy to criticize throwback acts for not bringing anything new to the table creatively, but there’s something interesting about an artist like Mai re-figuring an old sound that we’re sorely lacking with the moody alt-R&B wave, packaging it in a way that fits commercially into a more modern mould. You can see it in her speedier, rap-influenced flows and hints of newer drums. Regardless, I’m always automatically hooked by one of those upbeat 90s piano numbers anyway.
The album is framed by an acrostic poem of sorts, spread throughout the tracklisting in a similar way Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, as each of the 7 letters in “Ella Mai” correspond to a theme for the next couple of songs: “Emotion”, “Lust”, “Assertive”, “Mystery”, and the like – it really works in grounding the album in a concrete structure, Mai giving a few spoken word explanations of each section.
Most of these tracks are carried completely by the refreshingly silky-smooth vocals of Mai over some classic 90s R&B soulful guitar and piano loops with the faintest hint of modern hi-hats. In total command of the rhythms of the track, most of these tracks are accompanied by some breezy higher harmonies that center everything in the most fun aspects of music from that era even more. The Chris Brown-featuring track “Whatchamacallit” is a complete blast from the past, Mai dropping into an immediately memorable hook as she speeds up her delivery to convincingly sing of a discrete encounter in her adorably innocent higher range, sounding frantic yet assured. Her range is something else that can really take you by surprise, going a lot lower at the start of follow-up track “Cheap Shot”. The track represents one of the more trap-influenced cuts here. Still, Mai manages to make it fit in with the vintage feel of the rest of the project with the classic-sounding harmonies – the sparse vibes of the hook playing off the skittering rhythms of the percussion is another thing that stands out immediately, Mai closing the track with some Mariah-esque higher runs.
The immersive old-school production across the board here can almost distract you from just how great of a singer Mai really is, until she closes the project with the piano ballad “Easy” that puts all the focus on her as she delivers a seriously beautiful emotional vocal that fits right in with the 90s divas she loves so much. It’s over when that choir comes in to back her up. “Shot Clock” is a great concept for a song, as Mai waits impatiently by the phone for someone to confirm their desires as the time on the clock ticks down. Mai gets a little more aggressive lyrically, the funk bassline and minimal synth chords framing a place for the spotlight to be more on some impressive vocal acrobatics as she reasserts her own worth and criticizes a missed opportunity. “Own It” is another track that fits perfectly in the “Assertive” section, as she takes a smooth Adina Howard sample and knows just how to use her flexible vocals on one of the more sensual tracks here.
Mai links up with some pretty great guests as well, bringing the EGOT winner himself John Legend aboard for the almost doo-wop track “Everything” and fellow rising R&B star H.E.R. for “Gut Feeling”, a bouncy piano track where the two similar voices melt into some nice harmonized moments.
I can’t get enough of current single “Trip” right now either – it’s essentially a perfect follow-up building on the momentum of “Boo’d Up”. There’s something about the staccato phrasing in the hook and classic piano instrumental combined with a much more capable mainstream singer than we’re used to that makes it feel so unique and refreshing amongst the other popular music at the moment. So much of Mai’s appeal is an indescribable kind of X-factor.
The album does take little bit to pick itself off the ground at the start, some of its weaker tracks opening it up. I’ve seen people criticize Mai’s lyrics for being repetitive, but it doesn’t usually get as annoying as it does on the song “Good Bad”, the verses opening with the same set of lines before the chorus features a couple lines that try to shoehorn the song’s title in as many awkward ways as possible, going on for too long without one of the inescapable earworms of a hook she’s so good at. The next track “Dangerous” is one of the more instrumentally disparate tracks here, and for now Mai occupies such a particular niche that the distorted synth guitar here feels a little over-the-top.
A lot of these tracks do feel somewhat similar to each other, but at this point I’m just so glad that there’s someone bringing this sound at its purest essence to the mainstream again. Mai’s vocals are outstanding throughout this project, and it’s endlessly replayable since the hooks are so strong and its easy to get lost in just how smooth everything sounds. This is a pretty excellent exercise in throwback material.
Favourite Tracks: Boo’d Up, Trip, Whatchamacallit, Everything, Easy
Least Favourite Track: Good Bad