Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” just might have the zaniest origin story of any recent hit: In December of last year, almost exactly 10 months after the song was first released to little fanfare, a patron requested the track at a club in Oakland. “The whole place went, ‘Woo!'” DJ Big Von recalled. “I saw a fat dude do a cartwheel.” He took the song back to his radio station, called Mai’s label-head, the hip-hop producer Mustard, and the machinery that creates hits started to whir.
There’s not as much of that “woo!” feeling on Mai’s eponymous debut album, though there are a couple of “what?” moments. Even Michael Jackson might stumble trying to sing the line, “it ain’t cheating, it’s a whatchamacallit,” and the most sentimental listener might still object to the phrase, “chuckles and cuddles and sometimes eye-puddles.”
But there’s no denying that eye-puddles come with the territory: Mai chronicles her relationships, from the good (“I love you ’cause you love me with no makeup”) to the bad (“Five years of waiting and I’m tired of being patient”) to the lusty (“Whatever’s your fantasy…”).
The majority of Ella Mai is produced by DJ Mustard, who was also partially responsible for “Boo’d Up,” but his other musical choices here are often limiting. To the extent he’s had success with R&B singers, it has come mainly through springy club singles at sashay-friendly tempos — Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid” and Tinashe’s “2 On.” There’s nothing that intoxicating on Ella Mai, but a similar monotone palette rules: a stubby keyboard riff, electronic snaps and claps, synth-bass. Luckily, Harmony Samuels didn’t get the memo, and his contribution, “Cheap Shot,” is an odd ballad that mixes a trap hook with an arena-rock bass line.
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If the arrangements sometimes sound automated, Mai is adept enough as a singer to enliven them. In particular, she’s comfortable in her lower register at a time when many young acts neglect that part of their range. So on “Good Bad,” her voice dips twice during the line, “I just spent about a day doing my hair/ Still ain’t fuckin’ with it, I ain’t going nowhere,” invigorating a couplet that many vocalists would sing straight and move past.
And few singers sound as good as Mai when she’s knitting syllables into gloriously alliterative refrains. That was the key to her breakout hit (“Ba-doo, boo’d up”), and it’s just as important to the follow-up, “Trip:” “I think that I’m done trippin’, I’m trip-trippin’/ I’ve been sippin’, that’s how I control/ This feelin.'” Add in a gospel-like vamp on the piano, and the result is irresistible — “Boo’d Up” is not a one-off.