With the recent success of her Billboard charter, “Boo’d Up,” Ella Mai is becoming R&B’s new favorite rising songstress. But her presence and the single have been on the scene, for well over a year now.
I first discovered her roughly three years ago, back when Instagram was the platform she used to broadcast her talent with R&B covers. In my weekly ritual and conscious preparation to one day recruit talent as an A&R, she was the first of many covers I planned on skimming through that day, but unbeknownst to me, she was the only one I’d listen to. I spent the rest of the day obsessing over the twists in her covers and the quality and range of her voice. It’s easy for me to recognize a beautiful voice as just that, but there are some people who have an ambiguous star quality about them, and she possessed that. I was hooked. The following weeks consisted of endless research that would provide answers to who this amazing singer was. All I could find was that she competed on the 11th season of “The X-Factor UK” as a member of a group who didn’t make it past auditions. I contemplated reaching out for an interview, but self doubt got in my way. She would never entertain an interview from an aspiring journalist, especially when she works for no publication, right? I didn’t reach out. Three weeks later, she was signed to DJ Mustard.
Ella Mai, named after Ella Fitzgerald, was born in South West London of Jamaican and Irish descent. She attended a performing arts school prior to a temporary move to Jamaica, New York when she was 12. Her accent was the cause of hatred among other girls, which ultimately led to her disinterest in singing. She returned to London following her high school graduation where she joined Arize, a group that landed but not did not succeed on “The X Factor UK.” She returned to school, this time at at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute, where she majored in creative musicianship. Somewhere along the line came her Instagram covers which were followed by Mustard’s discovery, a record label with 10 Summers, and her trilogy of EPs: Time, Change, and Ready.
I have been an avid listener of her trilogy, committing to memory the words of each song and patiently awaiting her concert. She opened up for Kehlani in her SweetSexySavage World Tour, but I wanted to see her alone, and the moment would later present itself. The tickets for her Time, Change, Ready tour went on sale on Howard’s Homecoming Friday and I purchased some for a show on December 4 at Mercury Lounge in NYC.
That night, the venue was packed and the crowd was swooned by the 23 year old, clad in a burgundy sweatsuit, reminiscent of the era where Air Force Ones and velour suits were a thing. It wasn’t long before the crowd would realize her talent. To say that each song performed sounded like the actual record would be an understatement. The intimacy with which each note was sung along with the transitional yet relatable introductions instead increased the desire for a live rendition of her records.
I belted out every word, but getting a shoutout for my participation was a highlight, second to meeting her, because she stood online after the show and took pictures with all those who wanted one, if you need some sense of her humility. It was clear she had an audience, but she hadn’t yet popped, not as much as H.E.R or Daniel Caesar had or at least not the way I had wanted to her too.
At the time of her performance, Ella Mai seemed to have been heavily promoting her most recent single “Naked,” but it was “Boo’d Up,” a track off of her 2017 EP Ready that has catapulted her from underground to mainstream. It’s “Boo’d Up” that hit the airwaves, moved its way up to top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and sparked the release of a video that hit 20 million views in 3 weeks. It’s since been the song in the Instastories shared by the likes of Angela Simmons, Miss Diddy, Tank and Chris Brown, has been remixed by Dave East, Vado and Plies, and has been the butt of arguments between those who claim to most love the song. Despite its year old release, the song’s unexpected popularity has introduced it to a whole set of new ears, which has consequently given her access to bigger platforms and bigger venues, like Sounds of Brazil, or SOBs as most call it.
It had always been a dream for her to perform there and she did. On May 19th, she managed to sell out the show, much like she did at Mercury Lounge, except SOB houses 100-150 more people, with much less notice. This time, security escorted her to the stage and the crowd included photographers, press, and more than a few people who were unaware of her discography, but waited patiently for “Boo’d Up” to be performed. Unlike before, articles were published less than 24 hours in Vibe, Billboard and ThisIsRnB among other publications. Damn. Another missed opportunity.
I’m happy for her. Her success brings to me a joy similar to the one many experienced watching Cardi B rise to fame. Their stories are actually comparable in regards to the sudden success of a pre-released single that hit the Billboard charts prior to the release of their debut albums. I just don’t know what bothers me more: that I wasn’t more involved in her introduction to the mainstream, or that it feels like people are treating her like this is her first song; like she doesn’t have a body of work that is equally as amazing to the song that just so happened to pop.
I guess I’m realizing I’m an Ella Mai fan for reasons beyond her music. To me, she serves as an example of the behind the scenes grind that ultimately pays off with consistency. Her success demonstrates the rise after failure and the power of social media, and oh yea, the importance of taking advantage of an opportunity when you see one!