Ella Mai first made a name for herself with the summer hit “Boo’d Up,” a song that few new artists could have sung with the same starry-eyed naiveté. Signed onto DJ Mustard’s 10 Summers label since 2016 and now receiving executive producing credits from the same, Ella Mai has released a likable 90’s commercial R&B homage replete with Mustard hip-pop signature sounds. The finger-snapping, perfectly fine debut contains plenty of Easter eggs for genre aficionados: a “no no no” reference here, a wink to “little secret” there, and a “writing’s on the wall” nod elsewhere.
Despite a few obvious references, Mai avoids pastiche, although a tightened tracklist would have provided focus to this over-long collection of 16 songs. The album’s bloating prevents her from ever leapfrogging the effectiveness of her singles like “Trip” or the aforementioned “Boo’d Up.” Ella Mai is a capable singer and even a fair songwriter. She has, on occasion, managed to write nuanced examinations of troubled relationships (“I hope the next girl you love ends up f***ing you over”) by juxtaposing glaring flaws in a partner with her own faults and weaknesses. At once point she criticizes a partner who is “chewing with [his] mouth wide open,” but the album closer “Naked,” is a challenge for her lover to accept her, “resting b**** face and all.” When she asks “Can you love me naked?,” she manages to distance nudity from the traditional context of R&B seduction and reframes it to align it more with body positivity and even mental health to a lesser degree.
Some threads, however, feel a little too dated. Like Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope, the album contains riffs on each letter of her name (‘E’ is for “emotion,” ‘L’ is for “lust,” etc.) that feel tired and even Hallmark-esque. The ending of what is perhaps the album’s strongest song “Shot Clock” is something of a groan-inducing whimper: “Love…full of chuckles and cuddles and sometimes eye puddles…” That lyric sounds like it should be the inside of a box of chocolates held by a teddy bear.
Many young artists have been using retro, soulful sounds as a canvas for painting their own pictures. Ella Mai’s talent and likability showcased by her Instagram covers got her discovered by DJ Mustard, after all. On her debut, however, her abilities aren’t always accompanied by assured or clear direction. She told Forbes that she didn’t want to rush the production and release of an album in the wake of the somewhat unexpected success of “Boo’d Up,” but on certain tracks, the albums sounds like that is exactly what happened. Ella Mai will score her a few more hits (“Sauce” is undeniable and “Cheap Shot” almost sounds like it could be a b-side on Rihanna’s ANTI), but the debut doesn’t quite bring the best out of her.