Friday, October 19, 2018

album review: 'ella mai' by ella mai

So here's a serious question: who the hell was expecting 'Boo'd Up' to be as big as it was?

Because I sure as hell didn't, I'll say that right now - when I first covered Ella Mai's breakout single on Billboard BREAKDOWN on a week chock full of better R&B tunes, I was underwhelmed by this... hell, I think on some level I'm still underwhelmed by it, or at the very least stunned that it was a top 5 hit! And I'll be very blunt and say that it seemed like the odds were stacked against Ella Mai - signed to DJ Mustard's label of all places from getting discovered on Instagram, unlike so much modern R&B 'Boo'd Up' was not a darling of streaming so much as the radio, which made me very curious what sort of organic groundswell Ella Mai would be able to carry into her full-length debut. Yeah, those EPs had gotten a little traction, but it was hard to avoid the narrative that this album was as much of a trial for the redemption of DJ Mustard's career than it was for Ella Mai. And really, I won't lie and say that I was incredibly interested in this beforehand, but I did want to see if Ella Mai would stick the landing on her own, so what did we get from this self-titled, full-length debut?

So there's a part of me that's a little torn on discussing this debut, because the more listens I gave Ella Mai the more I came to the conclusion that her particular approach to R&B was just not for me, fitting somewhere between K. Michelle and Jhene Aiko and sadly lacking a lot of what I like about both artists. And I won't mince words: this debut has significant issues across the board and while it does do a fair bit to establish Ella Mai as a personality I will make the argument it might not be as flattering or effective in cushioning her weaknesses or helping her stand out. That all being said, there are snippets here I want to praise and might just be enough to consider this passable - not great, maybe not even all that good, but scraping onto the positive side of the spectrum.

And I feel we have to start with a fundamental contradiction with Ella Mai, namely that this does not really feel like a modern, mainstream R&B project, or one that's adhering to the trends we're seeing right now - but thanks to the radio's comfort with this sound, it'll wind up notching airplay anyway. And the biggest contributor to this is DJ Mustard, whose presence is really hard to ignore in the production even if you don't hear his call sign... and sadly it's not DJ Mustard at his 2014 peak either, more reminiscent of the fidgety, overworked production you heard in 2015 that didn't have the same melodic tightness and where his shortcomings were becoming abundantly clear - vocal lines were not given a lot of space and multi-tracking could sound pretty cheap, the beats were often underweight, clipped, and way too close to the front of the mix, and it would be hit-or-miss whether any integration of organic instrumentation sounded good. And when it comes to overall melodic composition, the biggest cues seem to be taken from the early-to-mid-2000s - minimalist, midtempo, but generally softer and more inviting, and for Ella Mai who is not a vocal powerhouse or huge personality, this is a lane that can at least feel cohesive and work for her.

Of course, the big problem is that it doesn't always come through, and a big part of this comes down to the production just not giving Ella Mai much to work with, including some really misguided choices. I'm not exactly a fan of blatant R&B interpolations of hip-hop as it is, but DJ Mustard somehow making 'Shot Clock' both wispier and clunkier than its interpolation of Drake's 'Legend' is a special kind of screw-up. And that stuttering clunkiness sadly translates to other cuts here as well, like 'Trip' and 'Run My Mouth' that might bring something of a trap flavour to the percussion but the lead vocals are not really mixed in a way to flatter a mix that's trying for a cavernous approach close to what SZA is doing better. Hell, if I'm going to focus on mixing issues, it's one of the big reasons why 'Boo'd Up' has never really clicked with me, and it's one of the big reasons why the messy layering and ugly synths of 'Whatchamacallit' with Chris Brown doesn't work at all. This circles into the guest stars... and honestly, I think Chris Brown might have been the best counterpart to Ella Mai on this album if only because they play with the same style and tone of radio-friendly R&B, warts and all. Don't get me wrong, her collaborations with John Legend and H.E.R. are better songs with more layered melodies in the keys... but they also highlight an imbalance of charisma and star power where Ella Mai is just not on their level yet when it comes to vocal presence. And the production can only do so much to help here, and to DJ Mustard's credit, the other producers he brings on-board don't exactly outshine him. Yeah, I might like the more dense percussion and buzzy synth from Bryan Michael-Cox on 'Dangerous' in providing one of the more upbeat cuts here, but the melody choices on 'Cheap Shot' and 'Own It' are weedy and gross, and on the flipside, when DJ Mustard chooses to give Ella Mai some real space on the gospel-tinged piano ballad closer 'Easy', it's the best song on the album, without question!

But now we have to get to the content, and arguably where I feel Ella Mai probably lost me the most, because in comparison with a lot of her peers, her approach to relationship melodrama is a lot messier, or at the very least she seems to have much less control on the situations. Part of this is a factor of her limited range and DJ Mustard's production not exactly helping her sell sensuality, but a fair few of these songs can feel awfully wishy-washy and indecisive, and that's a tough emotion to keep compelling - believable for sure, but at some points I really found myself wishing that Ella Mai would take more agency, especially with those spoken word pieces strewn around the record with every letter in her name representing some facet of her personality. 'Whatchamacallit' is the most obvious example: they're both cheating, but they don't want to say they're cheating so they don't really put a label on it... but just because you're calling it something different doesn't mean we don't know what this is. And her inability to sell an ultimatum makes certain songs just feel unbelievable - 'Sauce' tries to have her sound capricious but there's no sense that she'll really walk away, and 'Cheap Shot' is even worse, where the guy is actively making the low blows and she knows she should leave, but by the third verse she's taking some of the blame and I'm not getting evidence why. Then there's 'Shot Clock' where she's trying to set a time limit on him getting serious, but if you've been with someone for five years dating, I'm not sure the thirty second timer is going to get him to move! And here's the thing: when this album does play into her naivete or just sheer lovestruck adoration, it's certainly more believable, that's why 'Boo'd Up' was endearing and it's why there are so many love songs on this project - hell, even songs that leverage more insecurity like 'Gut Feeling' with H.E.R. or 'Dangerous' where she doesn't have evidence to really question things going wrong but is uncertain anyway, that can work for her. But I'll admit the R&B I like tends to project strength or at the very least get more introspective about vulnerability like what SZA and Jhene Aiko do, whereas for Ella Mai it feels very surface-level and kind of basic.

And you know what, that can be enough - for the right sort of R&B, especially on a debut and especially with this production, getting the basics right can work... but it doesn't exactly help Ella Mai stand out especially on a project that can start to run long at just under an hour. And that's assuming everything goes right... which it sadly doesn't here. Now part of this comes with the acknowledgement that this isn't really for me and I understand that... but it's hard not to feel like without radio accessibility I don't know what Ella Mai brings that's all that special to the table. But there is just enough quality to keep this passable and I'll definitely argue that 'Easy' is a great way to end the album, which is just enough to push this to an extremely light 6/10. If you're an R&B fan this'll not blow your mind, but I will say if you liked 'Boo'd Up' and 'Trip', you'll probably get by fine enough with this. Not sure I'll have much to say going forward, but hey, if Ella Mai sticks around, you never know.

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