With Her Self-Titled Debut Album, Ella Mai Marks The Moment As Hers

Words: Jesse Bernard

Ella Mai foresaw this moment long before the rest of us did. Besides the head of her record label, DJ Mustard, and her mother—with whom she migrated from England to New York City in 2007—it was clear “Boo’d Up” would be the catalyst of her rise to stardom, and so it was. There’s no cute or symbolic name for her debut album to describe that journey—simply Ella Maiand following her well-received EPs Time, CHANGE and READY, the eponymous name carries weight.

In the two years since the release of her debut EP, Time, Ella has spent her time learning and developing and possessing a dream that has existed much longer. The Ella Mai LP is a candid and personal affair; after drawing us in with “10,000 Hours” and “Boo’d Up”, the South London-born artist invites us to hear the full story of her life, love, and everything in between. She continues the spoken word, implanting her voice even in the moments when the music stops. The sequencing of the tracks is what you would expect of a traditional R&B album, where the more mellow and gentle songs are led by the club and radio-ready jams such as “Dangerous”, “Sauce”, and “Whatchamacallit” featuring Chris Brown—a somewhat dubious inclusion.

Ella Mai herself has said that she’s a child of ‘90s R&B and the shaping of her eponymous debut suggests she’s continuing the tradition. DJ Mustard’s executive production has to be credited here because it’s one thing making a hit, but to find a comfortable place for it isn’t always easy. The album closes with “Easy”, a piano-led ballad, and it’s one of the subtle touches that highlights Mai’s attempt at creating a well-rounded project. She is bolder and her voice further developed since appearing on The X Factor in 2014; the range of slow cuts like “Gut Feeling” with H.E.R. and the more uptempo “Sauce” confirm that.

Ella Mai marks a milestone moment for the contemporary R&B artist, but it’s still difficult to say it’s representative of British R&B—at present—particularly when Mai’s voice is woven with DJ Mustard’s American pop-ready beats. The features, which include John Legend, Chris Brown and H.E.R, are interesting inclusions. It gives audiences an idea of the direction she sees her career heading, and since her ascent to the top of the charts was brought on by her signing to DJ Mustard’s label, Ella Mai’s Americanness in tone will make her a success overseas for years to come.

If Insecure was still on air, there’s every likelihood Issa Rae could have included any one of the tracks that made the cut for Ella Mai’s debut. They enjoyed their own respective moments this past summer and, in some ways, both Insecure and Ella Mai’s hit “Boo’d Up” cater to twenty-somethings that made them the conversation of the summer. It also helped that several remixes of the song were made, such as Jacquees’, which was recently taken down from YouTube. As far as black pop culture goes this year, the nostalgic echoes of Tevin Campbell on “Boo’d Up” was all Ella Mai needed to ensure people were listening, way beyond summer. After all, she broke a record previously held by Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” for 14 years, becoming the longest-running No. 1 song (16 weeks) by a female artist in the history of the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay Chart.

Talk has already surfaced debating whether Ella Mai is the face of contemporary R&B right now. In many cases, that isn’t too distant from the truth. At points, the over-production of Mai’s vocals suggest there are limits to it which become more overt throughout the album’s duration. Across the spectrum within pop, contemporary R&B, Ella Mai isn’t the exception to the rule but perhaps more representative of a genre that gives preference to production, songwriting and the nostalgic feeling her vocals conjure.

Nonetheless, for over two decades R&B has been pop, and in the UK there hasn’t been an artist that has been able to maintain a strong presence here and in the States at a chart-topping level since Estelle. Ella Mai may not be the definitive R&B album of our time, but in an age where art becomes a moment that is digitally documented, it’s indicative of the pop-R&B we should expect. Ella Mai has finally reached the apex of her journey that began when she met DJ Mustard, and she wants us to celebrate the moment with her.

Posted on October 18, 2018