This past summer, Ella Mai brought ‘90s-style R&B back from the dead. Her single, “Boo’d Up,” was only rivaled by Drake and Cardi B (NBD tho) for song of the summer. It was a surprise hit that astonished everyone, including Mai and her producer Mustard. The unexpected hit single was an outlier on her 2017 EP Ready, but Mai has leaned into the nostalgia provoked by this Xscape-esque slow jam on her self-titled debut album to deliver 15 sweet and sentimental songs.
Mai followed “Boo’d Up” with “Trip’, and though Mustard’s fingerprints are all over the album’s production, the trap beats are scarce. She dusts off old-school phrases like“my bad” on “Trip” and “swerve” on “Good Bad,” but focuses on love and relationships with melodies cradled in a soft beat that’s more a sway than a lunge.
One of her early supporters was Chris Brown, who remains a pariah (although not to his rabid fanbase) for his well-documented abusive behavior. Brown posted an early Instagram in support of “Boo’d Up” and, in return, gets a feature on one of Mai’s songs — the one most recently dropped as a single, in fact — “Whatchamacallit.” His inclusion demonstrates how much women of color in music are dependent on men to help break them. It’s disappointing that she chose to tie herself to Brown in a song, given his history with women, but it’s also a move that will generate a lot of interest.
The album also features John Legend on the soulful track “Everything,” which comes complete with the most John Legend-esque piano line imaginable and a vocal performance he obviously arranged. There’s also a feature for H.E.R. on “Gut Feeling,” a lament that can be summed up with the lyric: “Why I can’t put my finger on what the fuck is up, what's missing?”
By far, however, the album is a showpiece for Mai’s crooning abilities. It could be bolstered with some different vocal arrangements — she leans heavily on a delivery similar to “ Boo’d Up” throughout that makes some of the tracks feel too similar. It could also benefit from a diversity of topics. While Mai plays it too safe, focusing on the story of relationships, her colorful language, invoking metaphors for gunplay, drinking, and the dangerous side of life, indicate she has much more to say.