The year was 2018, and you literally couldn't go anywhere without hearing "Boo'd Up." The song dominated the airwaves, served as the background music for everyone's Instagram shenanigans, and played at every party you went to. Innocent and sweet, the R&B track called back fond memories of the good old days of staying up all night with the person you like, giggling and whispering sweet nothings into the wee hours of the morning. It was undoubtedly the song of the year, and it made Ella Mai a star.
"Boo'd Up" and other songs on her incredibly successful Grammy-nominated debut album ushered the London-born singer-songwriter into a class of modern R&B singers, alongside talents like Kehlani and H.E.R. Mai would spend the next year sharing her art on some of the biggest stages in the world, performing at major award shows (the BET Awards, the American Music Awards) and embarking on a whirlwind tour that took her all over the world. And then she went quiet.
During a phone conversation with Refinery29, Mai acknowledges that it's been quite some time since she's dropped new music. Sure, there have been many good features during her hiatus — she lent her voice to Usher's brilliant "Don't Waste My Time" and dueted with fellow Brit Mahalia for "What You Did" — but a solo Mai song has been a long time coming. Almost two years after the release of Ella Mai, the singer is finally back with something new.
"When I was recording my first album, I was 21, 22, I'd just moved to L.A. and was trying to figure out a lot of different things," she tells Refinery29. "My experience as a young artist and a young woman navigating everything that we go through helped me become more assertive about what I want to say and what I want to sound like. I still sound like me, but just a more mature version of myself."
"Not Another Love Song" finally sees the return of the hopeless romantic, building on the butterflies-in-your-stomach, sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-at-the-cookout energy of "Boo'd Up." But both the vibe and the sound are different this time around — more mature. Three years older than she was when she first penned the culture-shifting songs of her debut project, Mai has evolved as an artist. She's been through some things in life and in love, and her new song (and the new music to come very soon) reflects that evolution.
With the new single, listeners meet Mai at a point of uncertainty in her love life. She sings about the emotional rollercoaster of a new love, torn between the thrill of a new romantic prospect and the wave of anxiety that goes hand in hand with falling for someone. Through the lyrics, the R&B songstress tries to organize her thoughts. Am I overthinking it? Am I doing too much? Is this worth the risk? Still, even as she second guesses herself, Mai can't hide the way she feels: she's in love.
"I'm going down 'cause I know that it's you I see in my dreams," she sings over stacked harmonies on the bridge, lost in the haze of her love. "I'm going down — let me drown living in my dreams."
On the outside, Mai keeps a cool, level-headed temperament, but there's a constantly raging storm of emotions tucked away inside of her. "I'm a Scorpio," she helpfully offers, "and I'm the person who will listen to sad music when I'm sad and just cry every day for the rest of my life."
Those strong emotions are expressed most fluently through her music. Love and feelings are very important to Mai, and she takes lessons learned from her personal romantic experiences as well as those of the people around her to tell those stories through her art. "Not Another Love Song" gives the singer an opportunity to express her own vulnerability, artfully fleshing out the parts of love that sometimes make us feel so small.
"I always write about things that I've gone through or things that my friends have experienced," Mai shares. "We tell each other everything to the point that it almost feels like you're in the situation, and that's what this song is. Talking in depth about that feeling that we've all experienced because we're human."
"'Not Another Love Song' is super vulnerable for me," she continues candidly. "I talked about love in so many different ways for my debut album, but with this song, I'm really trying to share the feeling of falling in love but not wanting to admit it or mess it up. It's a similar exploration, but I just dug a little deeper."
Vulnerability will be a running theme for Mai's next body of work, which she's quietly putting the finishing touches on. She is fully aware that after the success of chart toppers like "Shot Clock" and "Trip," expectations for her followup project are sky high. But the singer's motivation to up the ante is more internal than external at this point — she wants the album to perfectly encapsulate everything that she is.
"There's always a little bit of pressure, but this is more of a pressure created by me," Mai explains. "I was trying to figure out what I wanted to sound like and what I wanted to say, so there were definitely those nerves. But I was also extremely excited to get back in the studio and share this new era of my music with my fans. Because I know they'll be able to relate to my message."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.