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Album Review: ‘Ella Mai’

A new name in the R&B songstress game. Go track by track on her debut album.

Jackson Tyler

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If asked about today’s legendary R&B songstresses, artists like Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and Anita Baker may come to mind, but with the release of 2018’s self-titled Ella Mai it appears a new name will be engraved in our hearts. Ella Mai, 24, released her self titled album in October of 2018 and is already nominated for two 2019 Grammy Awards in the categories of Best R&B Song and Song of the Year. Mai just might be joining the ranks of Grammy winner’s Braxton, Blige and Baker sooner rather than later. 

Ella Mai follows the international success of the hit single “Boo’d Up” which graced the number five spot on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 and number one spot on the US Billboard Hot R&B Songs Chart during the summer of 2018

Mai’s 90’s style R&B influences are very prevalent throughout the album from usage of her deep vibrato to her beautifully elongated notes. Born in London, England, Mai moved to New York City, NY to attend high school returning to Britian upon graduation. During her time in NY,  Mai got first hand exposure to R&B music as this genre originated in the 1940’s U.S. jazz clubs. The fact that Mai sings in a style which originated in the U.S. and has now transcended across the pond is a testimony to how strong the album’s overall sound is. This fact paired with Mai’s strong vocal ability, in my opinion, places her way above other artists in her lane.

Each track on the album has a unique take of Mai’s views of love, relationships and dating which is cause for further analysis.

Track One: “Emotion”
Mai introduces her album with all the “Emotion” she can fathom. With a quick 20 second thesis, the theme of emotion is apparent in the remaining 15 tracks. Emotion is more than just the introductory track, it is the central ideal and basis for Mai’s overall musical vision.

Track Two: “Good Bad”
Mai explores personal perception while battling her internal personas of good and bad. She sings a theme that questions the need to be passive or assertive when it comes to dating. The underlying question of whether the good, loving, compassionate, caring and passive side is more lovable or if the attitude-having, constantly questioning side is more respected is answered by Mai’s hard hitting vocals. She knows she can indeed be “Good Bad.” Either way, she prevails in catching the attention of her potential beau.

Track Three: “Dangerous”
Mai goes on to examine the risk of love and trust by singing about how “Dangerous” love can be, but she is going to give it a try anyway. The style of this track could be closely compared to the fast pitched vocals of late 90’s Destiny’s Child.

Track Four: “Sauce”
On this Chris Brown type beat, Mai questions if her “Sauce” is too much to handle. The track begins with Mai singing herself praises, but indecisively ponders if she is coming on too strong. Whether she is or is not, one thing is certain. The groove of her relaxing vocals with just the right amount of cockiness had me hitting replay.  

Track Five: “Whatchamacallit”
Mai, along side R&B star Brown, creates an infectious sound that is all too familiar to current radio air play on the R&B charts. Although this track is very run of the mill – when it comes to the repetitious beat and duet style melody –  it showcases Mai’s vocal versitility and ability to keep up and even surpass the men of R&B.

Track Six: “Cheap Shot”
Mai expresses how she copes with unexpected love. On this track, she states the infatuation has her doing things she does not do normally, but how grateful she is to experience this new feeling. The hard hitting bass over the soothing yodels of Mai’s vocal runs is quite unique and creates a feel good vibe within my soul. 

Track Seven: “Shot Clock”
Time is running out for any potential suitor when it comes to Mai’s “Shot Clock”. This chopped and screwed infuenced R&B masterpiece showcases Mai’s vulnerability emotionally and vocally. Her voice overpowers the beat, however it is just what the doctor ordered.

Track Eight: “Boo’d Up”
The perfect blend of classic R&B and modern Pop infused R&B hits hard on the lead single “Boo’d Up”. It is no surprise this song hit number 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the US Billboard Hot R&B Songs Chart. Mai sings the sounds of her heartbeat and infatuation with love on this banger of a track. This is indeed Ella Mai at its best. With the modern twists on a classic sound, Mai could be compared to R&B princesses like Aaliyah and Ciara or even, dare I say it, the Queen, Beyonce’. “Boo’d Up” has even been nominated in the categories of  Best R&B Song and Song of the Year at 2019 Grammy Awards.

Track Nine: “Everything”
Mai once again showcases her versatility and ability to sing with the men of R&B, in this case John Legend. These two husky voices blend to create the oh-so-sweet sweet sound of sultry R&B. This is a perfect duet showing Mai’s collaboration skills.

Track 10: “Own It”
This track is the perfect filler song for Mai’s debut. Although this track is near the middle of the album, Mai yet again does not disappoints.

Track 11: “Run My Mouth”
On this perfectly written gem, Mai is so sexually satisfied with her lover that she has to tell the world. Mai’s vocals were so satisfying that I wish the track wasn’t two minutes long. As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. 

Track 12: “Gut Feeling”
Not only can Mai sing along with the guys, she can go head to toe with her female counterparts as well. Along side H.E.R., the two ladies sing about a woman’s intuition. While listening to this track, listeners everywhere will get a “Gut Feeling” that Mai will be around for years to come.

Track 13: “Trip”
Once again, Mai tackles relationships and love with her second single “Trip.” Is she tripping for no reason? Mai sings how crazy in love she has become and how she calms herself when realizing she is tripping due to the fact that love is overpowering her emotions. One thing is certainly clear here, her vocals are not overpowered on this soul piercing piece of art.

Track 14: “Close”
As the album draws to a close, Mai slows down and shows a little more vulnerability. Her need to be close to her love is apparent as she sings in a soft, shaky vibrato. On this track, her vocals can be compared to R&B sensations Kelly Rowland and K. Michelle.

Track 15: “Easy”
On the next to last track, she sings slow and straight out about how easy love is, reminding listeners to not make love difficult. Mai shows off her raw talent on this emotion-driven ballad. Clear influences from classic R&B are evident as only the sound of the piano is in the background complimenting her perfectly executed vocal runs. The pure honesty of this song makes this track my personal favorite. 

Track 16: “Naked”
On the final track, Mai once again reminds the masses of who she is. A strong woman who can admit her faults, open up to love, and knows what she wants. This track sets her up for the perfect follow up leaving the listeners wanting more.

Ella Mai’s artistic take on love and dating — as heard on “Good Bad” and “Dangerous” — shows Mai can reach listeners of modern R&B, while “Boo’d Up” and “Easy” are classic R&B. No matter where her career goes next, Ella Mai is a cohesive, solid album. Ella Mai is here to stay.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

Jackson Tyler Adams is a former communications and broadcasting student born in Chicago, IL. Raised in the often controversial state of Mississippi, his writing styles are deeply influenced by the Muckrakers of the early 1900s, current music and pop culture, human psychology and his own experience in a vast variety of career fields. Currently a resident of Dallas, TX, Jackson spends his free time focusing on photography and exploring the ever popular, sometimes overlooked, music scene of Dallas. Jackson is interested in becoming a journalist who draws attention to today’s social issues and injustices all while providing a shock value with his writing styles.

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