If you've been living under a rock over the past year and have yet to hear one of R&B's newest stars Ella Mai, open up YouTube on your iPhone and type her name in the search bar immediately following this article. Born in England, the 24-year-old singer has quickly risen to the top of the charts since her first EP dropped in 2016. Her single "Boo'd Up" easily became an anthem of love as it dominated radio station playlists and clubs across the U.S., building anticipation for her self-titled album released this fall.
Feeling, like I'm touching the ceiling /
When I'm with you I can't breathe /
Boy, you do something to me,
How could you not sing along to it? Although typically many singles are ruined by the constant repetition of a song played everywhere you go, eventually making people bored of it, this song is still an excellent combination of Ella's throwback R&B sound and the traditional love ballad of the soul genre.
Her audience broadened following her role as opening act to fellow soul sister Kehlani on her Sweet Sexy Savage tour in 2017. Ella’s buzz continued as her hits "Boo'd Up" and "Trip" played everywhere, and bigger name artists such as Nicki Minaj, Quavo and Jacquees hopped on the songs to make remixes. To be honest, I thought the remixes were unnecessary. The songs were already great on their own, and these remixes of other artists on half of the track took away from the quality of the original instead of elevating it.
Of course the album features these hit singles, but it also delivers several other gems. "Sauce" is a testament to her style and swagger. "You gotta level up if you want this", It paints a mood so confident: she doesn't care if you like her or not, she doesn't need you but will rock with you anyway, she knows she's fly and accepts it if you ultimately can't handle her force of nature.
"Boy, act right 'cause it's cool if /
There's too much sauce in the food for you /
Sorry that you can't keep up /
You're looking like you bit too much,"
"Shot Clock" is an anthem for anyone who may have a partner who either isn't committing or isn't sure of what they want. "What the fuck you waiting for?" The relatable frustration of being with someone who doesn't seem to understand what it takes to be in a relationship is on point. She's on the verge of moving on, and you'll miss your opportunity if you don't take action.
"Shot clock (like, don't sleep, don't sleep) /
You're gon' miss your opportunity /
Shot clock (like, don't sleep, don't sleep, nigga) /
Pick up your feet, nigga,"
Adding a unique trait to the album, Ella reads a short poem at the end of each song. While this may be cheesy to some, it's pleasant just to hear her sultry, English accent.
At the end of "Shot Clock", she comes in:
"L, Love /
And "-rs" and that's surely what we are /
Flip it 'round, add "-ve" and let's see if this goes far /
Full of chuckles and cuddles and sometimes, eye puddles /
Compose love like we're Mozart,"
I could have personally done without the track "Whatchamacalllit", featuring Chris Brown. It is a song that speaks about two people that, despite being in relationships, are having an affair with each other, labeling it a "Whatchamacallit" instead of what it actually is. Maybe this is just personal bias, but I am quickly annoyed by songs with lyrics that overtly glamorize cheating.
"I know you got a girlfriend, baby/
You know that I got a man, ooh yeah (oh yeah, shit, ooh, it's cool)/
We could wait until we're single (damn)/
But it won't be as fun then (Ooh, shit, no, ooh, baby),"
It's hard to listen to this objectively as I think in my head, are there really people out here that are cheating solely because it's fun?
It's a subject that fits under the tropes of the R&B genre and its tales of love and lust–however honest, proud, raunchy or distasteful.
The classic TLC's 1992 "Creep" is about a couple that stays together but often cheat on each other.
"I'll never leave him down though I might mess around /
It's only 'cause I need some affection, oh /
So I creep, yeah, just creepin' on,"
Destiny's Child's "Confessions" is about a woman who's man often bores her or pisses her off, so she engages in relationships with other men and has a "sorry-not-sorry" mood about it.
Trey Songs' 2015 album Trigga featured a song with Mila J., "Disrespectful" that essentially speaks about the same thing.
"If my girl found out you was on her side of the bed she'll kill you /
If your man found out I was on his side of the bed he'll go ham /
Girl you so special, I might be disrespectful /
Girl you so special, we so disrespectful,"
If they're so damn special, how about you commit to them? Let me save that rant for another day.
Great R&B songs have great storytelling, and these are stories nonetheless, of how complicated love and relationships can be or not be. Regardless of how this particular song makes me feel, it doesn't take away from the talent that Ella unapologetically delivered in this body of work.
This is a great first album, filled with catchy lyrics and good vibes. Although it doesn't come without some all-too-common R&B cliché attributes, it is a piece of art that she should be proud of as the success of it will only help build strength in her next work. It's clear in her music that she grasps everything that R&B is while not hesitating to pour in her own flavor, her own sauce.
Words by Destanie Martin-Johnson // @destaniemj