Can they do it again?
That’s the essential question for performers with breakout hits who go mainstream on the strength of a single track. On one end of the spectrum is Cardi B, who’s having what may be the best possible year for an artist whose breakthrough single, “Bodak Yellow,” arrived just last summer. On the other end are the many barely-remembered names who could never replicate the success of their one big song, who never were able to succeed their own “Bodak Yellow” with an “I Like It” or a “Girls Like You.”
Enter Ella Mai, the 23-year-old British singer with a debut self-titled album out Friday, who landed a song of the summer this year with her surprise hit “Boo’d Up.” She’s following Cardi’s template for success quite literally, signing on to Bruno Mars’ arena tour after Cardi dropped out. She spent the summer courting breathless press coverage and getting in front of viewers’ eyeballs with several award show performances, releasing a follow-up single “Trip” in August ahead of this week’s new album.
‘Boo’d Up’: How newcomer Ella Mai made the most swoon-worthy love song of the summer
Mai’s most diehard fans will find plenty to love in the album’s 15 tracks of moody ’90s-channeling R&B, which show her navigating various stages of the seduction process with a wisdom beyond her 23 years. But more casual listeners may be approaching Mai’s new album with a simpler goal: to hear if any of the songs are better than “Boo’d Up.”
And while her big hit is undeniably among the album’s best tracks, there’s more to love on the rest of the tracklist — though whether any of them have those same charts-topping earworm powers remains to be seen.
The deep-in-her-feelings Ella Mai of “Boo’d Up” and “Trip” is a much different Ella Mai than the femme fatale we hear on “Shot Clock.” Her previous singles may have been about love moving at dizzying speeds, but here, she’s impatient about one that’s going too slowly, barely containing her impatience as she presses her romantic counterpart to make a move.
This is Mai on her worst behavior as she butts heads with a partner who sticks around anyway, coining a new phrase — “I’m good/bad for you” — to describe an imperfect but sturdy relationship.
The album’s most successful guest feature comes from John Legend, who assists on the second verse of this slowed-down bedroom anthem, with Mai matching his energy with her own soulful vocals. Less impressive is her and Chris Brown’s ode to cheating, “Whatchamacallit,” a word that sounds clunky even for Mai.
It’s a bummer that “Naked” is just a bonus track, because the slow-burning track — as Mai asks for “somebody who loves me naked / someone who never asks for love, but knows how to take it” — is one of the album’s sexier stripped-down love songs.
This somber piano ballad gives Mai the big diva moment on the album that she deserves, featuring swelling strings and an angelic gospel choir as she shows off the full range of her impressive voice.
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