Photos: Jonathan Mannion
R&B has an exposed and artful aspect to it that requires baring one’s soul. Starting to make waves on the scene, Ella Mai delivers an infectious body of work that will have you riding the vibe train into the wee hours of dawn. With dynamic and harmonious vocals sitting on top of polished production, the spellbinding album takes you on an emotional journey of new love that explores every desire, question, reservation, and risk someone may find themselves feeling. New lovers have to sort out their cascade of sentiments and each track touches on these experiences.
Claiming her spot within the genre on songs like “Dangerous,” which utilizes haunting synths and an explosive afro beat, and “Sauce,” which harnesses the moody sound of the Rhodes keyboard to compliment her shameless attitude, Mai is commenting on young love in a soulful and intimate way. She nabs some incredible features from other R&B artists like Chris Brown, John Legend, and H.E.R. on this illustrious debut album.
The most intriguing part of the album are all of the hidden poems she includes at the ends of some tracks. Starting with “E” for “emotion” and ending with “I” for “Inner,” Mai makes an acrostic poem of her name and aligns each letter with a word she integrates thematically throughout the album.
“E” for “emotion” is the first poem and starts the album all together. Giving a relatively dictionary definition of the word, Mai notes that emotion is a “natural, instinctive state of mind.” Flowing out of “Sauce,” Mai introduces the letter “L” and defines it with the word “lust.” Beautifully describing it as “four letters like love, but less precious,” it foreshadows the theme of the next tune “Whatchamacallit,” a cheeky tune featuring Chris Brown that finds them both walking a fine line and sound just as confused as any other young person in an unfulfilling relationship. After the sultry tune “Shot Clock,” which tackles the physical aspect of love, Mai ends with the letter “L” and associates it with “love.” She claims love is full of “chuckles, and cuddles, and sometimes eye puddles” and that it is capable to “compose love like Mozart.” Though love can have physical highs and repercussions, like laughter and tears, it it possible to write your own beautiful love story. Capturing how the little things in a relationship build upon the love between each other, the seductive tune “Everything” featuring John Legend ends with Mai aligning “A” with “assertive.” This word in particular is important to embody as it reminds your partner that you are capable of confidence with or without them.
A new relationship can find you and your partner always in that mood, and “Own It” doesn’t shy away from accenting those senses and attractions. In this tune, Mai positions the letter “M” with “mystery.” Posing the question, “Who am I?,” Mai is ready to share who she actually is after reserving her true persona from her partner and even herself. Moving through the album, “Gut Feeling,” featuring R&B soul-sister H.E.R, is a blissful, yet sensual, duet they didn’t have to give us, but they did, and we are forever grateful. Mai introduces the letter “A” one more time and asserts it with the word “aware.” Noting that she has always felt protected by her walls and guardian angel, she sees in it her partner’s soul that she is ready to start again. Nearing the end of the album, “Close” is an alluring tune that uses all ends of Mai’s vocal range. From deep, supported notes to a glistening, airy head voice, this tune is an enchanting ride for listeners. Within this track, she establishes the final letter “I” for “inner.” She proclaims her music comes from within her, that everything she has given us up until this point has been mined from within her soul, stating: “I am Ella Mai.”
E - Emotion
L - Lust
L - Love
A - Assertive
M - Mystery
A - Aware
I - Inner
Ella Mai’s self-titled album is her way of defining her place in music as an artist, musician, and a self-aware person. Her songs act as recounts of love, lust, gratitude, and exposure. Throughout this work, she has exposed herself and reassures you that letting your guard down for someone is hard, but love is easy when you open your heart and encourages people to make love easy again. This mature album is one of many marks Ella Mai will be making in her career as an influential artist.