Ella Mai is trying to inject the romance back into R&B
Four years later, the singer proves she's retained the optimism of her doe-eyed debut.
In 2018, it was nearly impossible to escape the infectious, syrupy-sweet sentimentality of Ella Mai’s Grammy-winning hit, “Boo’d Up,” from her eponymous debut album. The brainchild of songwriter Joelle James – while a bit of a slow burn from its initial release in February 2017 – was a serendipitous harmony of the nostalgic ‘90s R&B piano melodies, lyrical romantic overtures to unrequited crushes, and a chorus charmingly composed almost entirely of enchanting scatting, almost as if to resemble the stutter-step of a heartbeat caught in one’s throat. The earnestness behind the lyricism and vocals quickly took hold across demographics and gender, the likes of which had last been comparably seen with Fantasia Barrino’s 2007 hit “When I See U” – gaining approval from everyone from Quavo and Chris Brown to Nicki Minaj, who hopped on a remix.
It comes as little surprise, then, that Mai’s sophomore offering, Heart on My Sleeve, is a return to the intergenerational formula of love songs that landed her a double-platinum debut album and a prime spot on Ariana Grande’s world tour. While many of her contemporaries have been parsing apart toxic dynamics, both past and present, in their lyrics, the 27-year-old Brit has chosen to continue to forego that lane, diving headfirst into amorous waters with a sustained brightness and sanguine energy; it seems almost anachronous to the sustained malaise that has seemed to take hold over the general stratosphere since mid-2020. Just in time for the transition from spring to summer, the crooner aims to capture the kinetic crackle of young lovers on a beachside stroll on the boardwalk, caressing one another on a Ferris-wheel ride with only the aroma of funnel cakes and backlighting of carnival rides and late-night fireworks illuminating their intimate embrace — the storyboard of endless videos and romantic comedies, from Grease, to Ashanti and Ja Rule’s “Mesmerize” and Beyonce’s “XO,” to The Notebook and Insecure.
Songs like “DFMU” (Don’t Fuck Me Up), “Fallen Angel,” and “Break My Heart” showcase Ella Mai at her best, cleverly inverting negative concepts on their head as a testament to endless optimism in the divine power and faith of love. That point is hammered to a head in the expertly arranged “Fallen Angel,” which concludes with an uncredited guest appearance from Kirk Franklin & The Choir on a song lamenting the divine experience of love, however fleeting. Similarly, “Break My Heart” position passion as a superpower that offers a cushion against the natural apprehensions that comes along with a burgeoning desire for a new companion: if I had to choose who could break my heart, baby, it'll be you.
There is some variation; Mai teams up with Roddy Rich for the DJ Mustard-produced “How,” a fairly paint-by-numbers breakup duet that seems custom-made for passive-aggressive Instagram captions, and despite indications to the contrary, “A Mess,” featuring Lucky Daye, still falls in line with contemporary R&B trends of detailing unseemly dynamics. The pairing of their voices offers an utterly delightful aural soundscape in a melody that harkens back to R&B trends at the turn of the century. Where the album falls short, however, is in its resistance to adding much dimension to the topic matter it chooses as its nucleus. With 15 tracks, choosing to croon largely lovesick melodies tends to belabor the further one wanders into the album, despite the well-arranged melodies and pitch-perfect vocals. There is plenty of space to interrogate the follies of love in its infancies — the healthiness of a crush turned infatuation, for example, or perhaps reminiscing on a heartbreak that you can now look upon fondly — and to Mai’s credit, some of that is attempted in this project, albeit a bit clumsily. “Leave You Alone” seems to be unclear whether being infatuated with a man is a good or bad thing, giving itself over to the endorphins of the moment and the melody; similarly, “Power of a Woman” is a perplexing track, awkwardly celebrating traditional gender roles, while “Feels Like” sounds like Mai using training wheels while attempting an intimate girl-boss anthem. As for the skits, they mostly manage to fit fine, save for Mary J. Blige, who, while a welcome voice in any R&B record, feels misplaced on an album structured around the finer parts of love, particularly considering her acrimonious last few years romantically.
After the pronounced ennui that enshrouded the last two years, the world could use a bit more love in the air; it is certainly not to be found in the swipes of dating apps, which have effectively gamified and sanitized the magic and chemistry that comes from human interaction in favor of creating data points and revenue. In that sense, it is admirable that Ella Mai can maintain a firm sense of optimism in the power of romance and its ability to transform, seeking to transfer that conviction that has been sustained since she debuted “Not Another Love Song” in 2020. At its core, Heart on My Sleeve is a wonderful, carefully curated collection of beautiful R&B songs that play around with proclamations of love and make leaps of faith in a time when people are less secure than ever. It’s a bold, and in the right circumstances, heartwarming proposition, particularly for those who are deep in the throes of young love or not so removed enough that they can still recall it. Weighed down by current sequencing, however, the purity of Mai’s sentiments gets overshadowed by the directionless bloat, allowing listeners to let the melodies blend into each other and relegate the lyrics to the background. Similar to the nascent head-over-heels moment in a relationship, the power of falling in love with a piece of music is in the melody and lyrics consuming your space until it you are freed from the vice-grip it has over your heart; it is a shame that the noise in the album sequencing robs fans of that opportunity with Heart On My Sleeve.