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Mainstream music is being made over, as artists craft songs that don't fit neatly into a single genre. The transformation has been liberating for some acts, allowing them to sculpt an identity without fitting a specific mold. Yet the change has also been frustrating for R&B fans like me. It seems like R&B music only becomes popular these days if it sounds like Drake or Bryson Tiller. And when artists refrain from singing over 808s, they are usually absent on curated playlists and Top 40 radio.
Now thankfully, the internet makes it possible to find whatever type of R&B suits you. But it still excites fans when traditional R&B breaks through in this genre-fluid era. These moments have been provided by artists like H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar who have sounds that are soulful, yet progressive. But the biggest breakthrough belongs to Ella Mai, whose song "Boo'd Up" was inescapable this summer and set a Billboard record for R&B/Hip-Hop airplay.
The song catapulted her into stardom, and her quick rise ramped up anticipation of her debut album. "Boo'd Up" raised expectations for Mai, and meeting those hopes was as daunting as pulling off a high jump. But Ella Mai gracefully clears the bar with her self-titled debut.
Mai hails from the U.K., which becomes clear when she speaks on the album's opening interlude titled "Emotion." The interlude introduces an acronym that uses each letter in Mai's name to represent a word that defines her content. Two of those words are love and lust, and they guide much of the album. The theme of love plays out on "Good Bad," as Mai describes the minor conflicts that commonly pop up in relationships. The song highlights her age, since at 23 years old, she probably hasn't been through it like Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans.
But while the song may lack depth, it still highlights the talents that have attracted listeners to Mai. She has a vocal tone that makes her melodies infectious and "Good Bad" is no exception. The song is a catchy tune that reels listeners into an energetic start to the LP.
Mai builds the momentum with the following song titled "Dangerous." The track was produced by the great Bryan-Michael Cox and he gives Mai a synthy, up-tempo soundscape that stands out from her previous work. The song is a change of pace for Mai, but she still sounds comfortable on it. She reflects the track's vibrancy as she sings of the risks she is willing to take for the person she loves. And Mai shows off her growth as a vocalist with the control she has during her runs and shifts in pitch.
"Dangerous" will be a pleasant surprise to some, but another song will likely be a disappointment. The first dull moment on Mai's album is her collaboration with Chris Brown, "Whatchamacallit" (Yes, that is actually the song's title). Hopes were high for the track since the pair meshed well on a previous cut called "This X-Mas." But the title of their latest song should have tipped us off that it would be forgettable. The beat and the lyrics are cheesy, making the song a speed bump on an album that otherwise flows smoothly.
"Whatchamacallit" is a misstep, but Mai quickly finds her footing again on "Cheap Shot." Over string-based production, Mai explains how the risk she described on "Dangerous" can manifest itself. She sings, "Got me doing things I ain't do, true / Drinking, smoking, doses, emotions / Somethin' 'bout the pain mixed with you / Got me doing things, I ain't doing right." The song displays one of Mai's strengths on the album: expressing vulnerability. Whether the songs are written by her or not, Mai makes it clear that she resonates with the things mentioned in the lyrics.
The authentic appeal of Mai's music is best shown on her hit song "Boo'd Up." The cut originally appeared on Mai's 2017 Ready EP and you can tell it was recorded before the rest of Mai's album. A few of her runs on the song falter unlike the ones heard elsewhere on the LP. But despite those moments, the song is still refreshing in today's scene. Its melodies are cheerful and the chords behind them are just as bright. The end result is a 2017 song that feels like the R&B that dominated 106 & Park a decade earlier.
Mai keeps affection as her theme on "Everything," which features John Legend. The collaboration is a beautiful duet that, except for some hi-hats, is a traditional ballad. Devotion comes through in the song's lyrics and the singers' voices, but this sentiment is trailed by one that is not so innocent. "Own It" samples Adina Howard's "T-Shirt & Panties," so you should know what the topic is. Mai does the sample justice, showing a boldness in her words and delivery that makes you believe what she sings.
Another bedroom tune proves to be a standout track. "Close" is one of the smoothest songs you will hear this year, thanks to the way Mai's vocals melt into the beat. And her lyrics on the song are just as alluring as her voice, as she says, "It could be a room full of people, you still my sight / Look at how the whole world is searchin', but I got mine / It's emotional, uncontrollable, all I think about is you / So if the tears wanna flood my gates / Let the water flow."
As a whole, Ella Mai succeeds on her debut album. The songs come together like an album rather than a random collection of songs. Yet, the LP's cohesion does not deprive it of diversity. Songs like "Run My Mouth" are steeped in today's trends, while "Easy" and "Naked" feature timeless instrumentation. And Mai sounds good on it all, proving that her hit song is not just a moment to remember, but a sign of what is to come from her.
Notable Tracks: “Boo’d Up” | “Close” | “Dangerous” | “Gut Feeling”