Sounds Like: A British émigré full of self-confidence and an affinity for classic Nineties R&B
For Fans of: Kehlani, Tinashe, Mila J
Why You Should Pay Attention: This spring, the 22-year-old performed as an opener on the international tour of fellow rising R&B star Kehlani. In 2015, Ella Mai began posting short, seconds-long videos of herself singing popular hooks like 2Pac's "Keep Ya Head Up" and Chris Brown's "Ayo." She became known as "the girl who sung on Instagram," amassing more than 300k followers and drawing the attention of DJ Mustard, the L.A. producer responsible for hits like Jeremih's "Don't Tell 'Em" and Rihanna's "Needed Me." Mustard, who she now calls a mentor and a friend, signed the London-born singer to his 10 Summers label. Now based in L.A., Mai has since released three evocative EPs – 2016's Time and Change, and this year's Ready – that showcase her starkly emotional yet expressive voice, and a unique knack for spoken-word interludes. YouTube clips of her best tracks, like the atmospheric ballad "10,000 Hours," and a duet with Mustard affiliate Ty Dolla $ign on "She Don't," have resulted in millions of views.
She Says: At the age of 12, Ella Mai's mother got a teaching job in Queens, New York. She spent her high school years there before moving back to London. "When I went into high school, I don't know why – because I've been performing since I was little – but I think it was just the pressure of being somewhere so different, and I already stood out because I had an accent, and everyone always wanted you to talk, that I kind of shied away from singing a bit," she remembers. "I played soccer for nine years, so I took that route instead of singing. I played on the outside team as well as in school, so I was always playing soccer. It wasn't until I moved back to London that I really, like, started investing in music again and realized, OK, yeah, this is definitely what I want to do."
Hear for Yourself: On "Lay Up," Ella Mai promises a trip to the islands, a private flight for the night, "just the two of us, no one else invited. Baby, jump right in." Mosi Reeves