After a trio of EPs, Ella Mai’s self-titled first full-length is a flawed but elegant record for the British R&B singer. The album opens up Mai’s inner psyche, as she presents her name like an acronym with each letter representing a feeling. Starting with “E” for “emotion” and closing on “I” for “inner”, the definitions are meant to correlate with themes throughout the tracks. They lead into some songs naturally, although the tactic lacks a payoff moment. Regardless, Mai’s terrific vocals guide the tracklist, even through its emptiest bits.
Many of the songs follow a generic R&B finger-snap beat, with a little trap-hop here and there. While it works for “Boo’d Up” and “Trip”, it gets overused to the point where songs like “Shot Clock’ and “Everything” sound similar. Unfortunately, the repetitive production proves to be the main flaw of Ella Mai. The only song that’s a major departure from this is the penultimate “Easy”, but its piano use and simple lyrics ensure the only noteworthy thing about it is once again, Mai’s vocals.
While Mai might’ve been skeptical on “Gut Feeling”, she is entranced on the following “Trip”. The LP reaches a lyrical peak as Mai puts her “feelings on safety” so she doesn’t “go shootin’ where your heart be” before smartly portraying her love as a drug. Her wordplay is at its finest later in the track, dropping clever lines like “I tripped on your love, now I’m addicted”, painting love as her drug better in one line than Ke$ha did in an entire song.
The features aren’t too memorable, with the Chris Brown pairing “Whatchamacallit” being an exception. Welcomed synth sounds accompany the bassline snaps as the two detail a special side relationship in the dancy standout. Otherwise, John Legend doesn’t help “Everything” get off the ground.
“Naked” is a solid ending, but stripped down it’s merely a soft melody about beauty in its simplest form. Unfortunately, none of the lyrics here pack much of a punch, which withhold the LP from going out with a bang.
Ella Mai can draw comparisons to a debut from last year, but amidst the love and lust, Mai’s protagonist isn’t as palpable as the raunchy yet relatable millennial female SZA was able to present in her superior LP, Ctrl. There are just a few too many songs on here that could’ve been cut due to the repetitive sounds. Through it all, Mai’s debut contains a handful of enjoyable tunes, but often monotonous production doesn’t do justice for her soothing voice.
SCAD Radio gives Ella Mai a 7.4/10.