Ella Mai (released October 12, 2018)
Predicting music’s next star has never been easy, and 2018’s current landscape makes things all the more complicated. One minute, you’re the Internet’s favorite darling, two days later a 10-year-old tweet can put you on Twitter’s “canceled” list.
Somebody go check on ol’ girl who sang that “I’m a cow” song.
But Ella Mai’s trying to be here longer than a couple of weeks. She’s been fighting for her spot for way too long.
The R&B Faithful know her credentials: She peppered the game with EPs and singles for a couple of years before her single “Boo’d Up” began to gain traction in early 2017. In fact, it made the 2017 Top 100 R&B songs I compiled with my boys from YouKnowIGotSoul.com.
But it took awhile for the rest of y’all to catch up. Through the magic of social media, a year later “Boo’d Up” became an inescapable viral sensation, breaking records on its way to becoming one of the biggest R&B singles of the past decade.
Suddenly, Ella Mai became the queen of modern R&B.
But the gift of a mega-hot single became a bit of a curse: Thanks to memes, infinite covers and music’s current lack of platforms for artists to get face time, “Boo’d Up” became bigger than Ella herself.
Everyone knows that song. Many don’t know the singer.
That’s why Ella’s self-titled debut is so important – it gives her a chance to establish her name as a force in R&B, not just “the Boo’d Up girl.”
As you might expect, “Boo’d Up” overshadows pretty much everything else here – it’s just too insanely catchy to beat. And while current single “Trip” follows the “Boo’d Up” formula of repetitive, ultra-catchy hook, the remainder of the album branches out. Thankfully, we don’t get 15 additional “Boo’d Up” clones.
Nearly all the production here is handled by DJ Mustard, with a few exceptions. Most notably, Bryan-Michael Cox’s “Dangerous” is full of energy, feeling more in line with Ella’s earlier EPs. In fact, the album’s air-tight production is what really gives Ella momentum.
“Good Bad” is a light and energetic opener, while the throbbing production of “Shot Clock” makes for a nice groove. “Sauce” comes through with a catchy two-step tempo, but is limited due to the “tew much sauuuse” hook, which is quickly becoming one of R&B’s most overused cliches. We’ve had like four songs about sauce already this year, y’all chill.
Ella’s newfound fame has helped her enlist some high-profile friends for her debut, with H.E.R. and John Legend appearing for “Gut Feeling” and “Everything,” respectively. Unfortunately, those cameos don’t elevate either song. However, Ella shows surprising chemistry with my Cousin Chris Brown on the goofy “Whatchamacallit,” where they invent a dumb name to justify their cheating.
Keep playing y’all want to – you won’t be calling it a whatchamacallit, you’ll be calling it child support.
Ella Mai has its flashes of personality but many of the tracks here just feel too disposable. “Cheap Shot,” “Own It,” “Run My Mouth” – there’s not much to hang your hat on. The album does pick up a little momentum near the end, with the gentle ballad “Easy” serving as a nice change of pace while “Naked,” which pre-dates the “Boo’d Up” breakthrough, also serves as a standout.
Ella’s debut has its wins – “Trip” is already well on its way to being her next hit – but it feels a little too uneven to be the massive introduction she deserves.
Still, there’s enough here to prove that Ella Mai is more than “the Boo’d Up girl.” Say her name.
Best tracks: “Boo’d Up,” “Trip,” “Dangerous”
3.5 stars out of 5