Authenticity is one of those unquantifiable traits that many artists search and search for, but never quite find. You can’t build “authenticity” into a song through a particular collection of words and phrases; you can’t swagger or mope or scream your way there. It just happens when you put yourself out there, daring people to listen, asking those listeners to believe whatever those stories are trying to tell.
By all available measures, people are believing Ella Mai when she’s singing “Boo’d Up”, a track that’s not particularly noteworthy for any immediately apparent reason, but took a slow climb to the top of the US R&B charts this past spring, and even managed to brush the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 over the summer. For a track that was officially released as a single in February of 2018 (and had been kicking around for a year before that), that sort of longevity and success via the slow build of momentum is rare. Chances are, many didn’t find it particularly appealing the first time they heard it, but were singing along by the second or third. It’s a feat that Ella Mai manages by never oversinging, by using (but, crucially, not forcing) language that sounds like it exists in 2018, and by offering melodies that everyone can sing, though few so effectively. This is the trick, where she finds her own authenticity: she sounds like everyone, and nobody sounds like her.
Granted, the pleasantly retro, Casio-handclap-dominated backing track doesn’t hurt.
Ella Mai’s self-titled debut album is a fine way for a career to begin, even if it rarely hits the heights of the lofty bar set by “Boo’d Up”. The calm and the confidence of that single offers few hints toward the insecurity inherent in trying to put together an entire album, an insecurity that manifests itself throughout Ella Mai as a desire to do too much.
There’s plenty of good stuff on Ella Mai, probably even enough for an entire album. “Dangerous” is an early highlight, a track whose catchy, repetitive melodies and slippery production conjure memories of ten-years-ago Beyonce — less flashy, maybe, but certainly the right amount of attitude and attention to detail — and sticks out as a clear potential single. “Sauce” is a funky ode to self-worth and swagger, and Ella Mai sells the hell out of it, right down to her pronunciation of the title (“sauce”, as it turns out, rhymes with “mouse” and “house” here). “Everything” is a duet with John Legend that sounds like every other John Legend duet you’ve ever heard, but in a good way. “Gut Feeling” finds Ella Mai trading verses with H.E.R., and the two R&B up-and-comers are perfectly matched; neither outdoes the other, and their harmonies on the choruses are perfect. Album closer “Easy” starts its verse with a melody that’s a take on Modern English’s “I Melt With You”, but slowly twists it into a wrenching, lovely piano ballad.
All of those tracks are wonderful and easy to listen to, which makes the lows of the album particularly hard to take. The easiest of the culprits is the rather awful “Whatchamacallit”, a Chris Brown feature that explains that cheating isn’t actually cheating if you… don’t call it cheating. It has a good beat, but not much of a melody, and the unlikable subject matter and doubly unlikeable guest makes it awfully difficult to enjoy. While it’s easy to blame Chris Brown for that particular misstep, there’s nowhere else to put the blame for something like “Shot Clock”, which rides basketball metaphors farther than they can effectively go. “Trip” and “Close”, unceremoniously stashed at the end of the album, aren’t terrible, but aren’t exactly memorable, either, and could have been left off altogether.
Perhaps most distracting, however, are the spoken-word bits that serve as postludes to a number of the tracks here. An example: Tacked onto the end of “Sauce”, we learn that the first “L” is for “Lust, four letters like ‘love’ but less precious.” These interludes are short but distracting, and the fact that they exist as parts of otherwise unrelated songs makes them a particular annoyance if you’re just trying to listen to one song at a time. Really, even if you listen front to back, they don’t add much.
Still, there’s so much good here. Ella Mai has the voice, the attitude, and the way with a melody that could have her at the top of the R&B charts with piles of pop-crossover potential for years and years to come. Her album might be suffering from a case of bloat, but it doesn’t detract from the talent she clearly has. Besides, when the sky is the limit, can you really blame an artist for throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks?