Ella Mai & Jorja Smith, New Queens Of UK R&B
“Boo’d Up” is blowing up. Ella Mai’s sumptuous ’90s R&B throwback, first released way back in February 2017 as the opening track of her Ready EP, is on its second week at #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. The slow-burn success story had its genesis in Spotify and Apple playlist placement but has since been powered largely by R&B and hip-hop radio. “Boo’d Up” is second on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, sandwiched between Drake’s recent mega-hits “Nice For What” and “God’s Plan.” The song’s stunning ascent made Mai (pictured) the first woman to see her debut Hot 100 single climb to the top 10 since Cardi B. And if she’s not yet a household name on par with Drake and Cardi, that’s the league she’s balling in all of the sudden.
Not that the 23-year-old London native appeared out of nowhere. Like most apparent overnight success stories, she’s been toiling in the music industry trenches for several years, shooting her shots and waiting for one to land. In Mai’s case that’s meant a failed audition for The X Factor and a period of typical online obscurity followed by a series of releases on 10 Summers, the label run by DJ Mustard. After happening upon videos of her singing covers on Instagram, Mustard paired Mai with Ty Dolla $ign for her 2016 single “She Don’t,” which he debuted on Drake’s OVO Sound Radio show in early 2016. Since then she’s toured with Kehlani and released three EPs for Mustard’s label, none of them generating serious traction. That changed with “Boo’d Up,” which has a lot of people deep in their feelings.
When the track first came on my radar earlier this year, it reminded me of the Jay-Z/Beyoncé duet “Part II (On The Run)” — the moody chord progression, the prominent piano, the lovestruck euphoria percolating through the whole production. I like “Part II (On The Run),” but I love “Boo’d Up.” The former, a 2013 sequel to 2003 hit “’03 Bonnie And Clyde,” was first and foremost a branding exercise, quite literally: Both of Jay and Bey’s co-headlining tours have been named after it. The latter is just a masterful R&B song, a swooning document of new romance achieving liftoff.
The fact that most of us don’t know Mai yet actually works in her favor, the way a well-made film with an unknown cast can immerse you and cut to your heart. Unburdened by celebrity, narrative, or really any context at all, “Boo’d Up” is easy to see yourself in, which is especially effective with subject matter this universal. It evokes a new and exhilarating infatuation — one of those intoxicating reciprocal crushes people spend their whole lives chasing. Mai’s full yet fluid voice ably flutters over production that sounds like something Monica or Aaliyah might have cut in the ’90s and Noah “40” Shebib might’ve later chopped and filtered into a Drake hit. For a listener in their thirties like me, this ramps up the nostalgia factor exponentially: Not only does “Boo’d Up” sound like youth, it sounds like my youth in particular.
“Boo’d Up” is going to ensure Mai doesn’t remain anonymous for long, so I’ll be curious to hear whether she can leverage the song’s success into more surefire hits. While she gets her new material together, we have the Ready EP to hold us over. There’s no other “Boo’d Up” in the bunch, but the tracks that linger closest to its ’90s memory zone yield positive returns as well. Mustard’s signature ratchet sound — that minimal, snapping synth-funk aesthetic that took over pop and rap radio half a decade ago — is threaded throughout the EP, but Mai is best served by subtler production. The more overt Mustardwave throwbacks such as “Nobody Else” and “My Way” feel stale, though admittedly that may be a function of nostalgia cycles; maybe 15 years from now they’ll sound retro rather than outdated.
The new tricks Mustard has learned in the years since his breakthrough fare better. “Breakfast In Bed” rides a shimmering slow churn like the one he produced for Rihanna’s “Needed Me,” which contrasts nicely with his usual rudimentary keyboard bloops on the chorus. Rihanna’s ANTI also comes to mind on the twilight piano jam “Anymore,” this time because of Mai’s rap-inflected delivery. And “Makes Me Wonder” ably blends Mustard’s signature sound with Mai’s ’90s impulses, landing on something like a Kamaiyah ballad. The lot of it sounds like Mai and her creative braintrust zeroing in on a winning approach in real time. Now that the world is falling for “Boo’d Up,” here’s hoping they can make the love affair last beyond that initial rush.
Jorja Smith, another young ’90s-inspired R&B singer from England, seems poised to establish herself in just such a manner with Lost & Found, out tomorrow on the Sony-affiliated FAMM label. Smith, 20, doesn’t have an American hit anywhere near as big as “Boo’d Up,” but she had prominent features on both Drake’s More Life and Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, which is nearly as good a career foothold. “Get It Together,” Smith’s big More Life showcase moment, was a brilliantly low-key house track colored by lounge-ready R&B. Drake hopped on the mic now and then to coo, “You need me to get that shit together so we can get together,” but Smith was the star of the song, set loose to bubble and simmer elegantly across the beat. One lyric captured the mood especially well: “You know, we don’t have to be dramatic, just romantic.”
More Life was a dreamlike travelogue with a fixation on the sounds of urban Great Britain, which made Smith a perfect fit. Her version of R&B is more recognizably English than Mai’s, and not just because her accent shines through more clearly. Like Mai, Smith is liable to flash you back to the Clinton era, but it may be more appropriate to call it the John Major era in her case. Not that her jazzy neo-soul sound is unique to England, but alongside Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu in the mix there are distinct traces of Amy Winehouse, Sade, and AlunaGeorge. Smith is able to explore eclectic territory without losing her sonic identity; the Black Panther song “I Am,” a guitar-charred slow creep with a Bond-theme string section, demonstrates just how wide her lane is.
To wit, Lost & Found rarely sounds much like “Get It Together” or “I Am,” but Smith’s stylistic imprint is instantly recognizable anyway. The album begins with a run of loose, soulful tracks that let her show off her voice. Her words unfurl with a subtle rasp that smooths out when she segues into delicate, wordless flourishes, as if her voice frays on the edges of each word. The bass-bouncing title track, the noir-ish boom-bap gem “Teenage Fantasy,” the propulsive “Where Did I Go?” — it keeps going from there, the whole first side cohering into an impressive introduction.
The mood conjured so effectively up front continues on the album’s back half, even as the music begins to vary in more pointed ways. On the standout “Blue Lights,” Smith’s singing slides over into rapping — a nice touch for a tune that lyrically references Mobb Deep. Her turn as an MC continues even more expressly on “Lifeboats (Freestyle),” a live hip-hop groove the Soulquarians might have cooked up at Electric Lady. It’s ballads from there on out, and although neither the acoustic guitar lament “Goodbyes” nor the piano-led pair “Tomorrow” and “Don’t Watch Me Cry” are spectacular, they never succumb to the deep-cut dregs that subsume so many shadowy finales. Her voice and presence are too accomplished to go quietly into the night. If anything, Smith’s frequency is about to get a lot louder.
Shawn Mendes nabs his third #1 album on the Billboard 200 this week. Per Billboard, Mendes’ new self-titled release launches with 182,000 equivalent album units and 142,000 in pure sales. It’s his best sales week ever, and it makes him the third-youngest solo artist to tally three #1s. (Justin Bieber did it by age 17, Miley Cyrus by age 15.)
After Post Malone at #2 comes Pusha-T’s fantastic Daytona, which debuts at #3 with 77,000 units/39,000 sales, thereby besting the #4-peaking My Name Is My Name as his best-charting release. A$AP Rocky follows at #4 with Testing via 75,000 units/13,000 sales. Unlike Pusha, this is definitely not Rocky’s best chart performance; his last two albums debuted at #1. Cardi B, BTS, and Lil Baby are at 5-6-7, while sing-rapper Juice WRLD climbs to a new #8 peak with debut album Goodbye & Good Riddance after logging 43,000 units in its first full week of tracking. The Greatest Showman and J. Cole round out the top 10.
Drake may be losing in the rap beef department, but he’s still winning on the charts. “Nice For One” is back at #1 on the Hot 100 for a sixth nonconsecutive week. According to Billboard, that gives Drake 37 weeks total at #1, tying him with Michael Jackson for second most weeks all-time among solo males. Usher is first with 47 weeks, but when accounting for all artists four other acts beat him: Boyz II Men with 50, the Beatles with 59, Rihanna with 60, and Mariah Carey with 79. Drake wasn’t even in this conversation at the start of the year, but he’s totaled 17 weeks on top in 2018 between the six with “Nice For What” and 11 with “God’s Plan.”
Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” is back to its #2 peak, followed by “God’s Plan” at #3. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” falls to #4, with Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” and Drake and Lil Baby’s “Yes Indeed” holding at their respective #5 and #6 highs. As predicted, Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It” shoots to a new #7 peak thanks to the arrival of its video. Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” holds onto #8 for a second straight week, and the top 10 is rounded out by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” and Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry.”
Tove Lo – “Bitches” (Feat. Charli XCX, ALMA, Icona Pop, & Elliphant)
The brash “Bitches” was one of the highlights of Tove Lo’s underwhelming Blue Lips, and it’s even better when transformed into a pop posse cut with a video even more ridiculous than the song.
Christina Aguilera – “Like I Do” (Feat. Goldlink)
Every single from this new Xtina album so far has been intriguingly good, and so is this one about a tryst with a younger man, even though she repeatedly sings, “We can Marvin Gaye and get it on,” á la pre-improvement Charlie Puth. She makes up for it with the line, “You already know my story/ You were raised in all my glory.” Actually, that one’s kind of awkward, too. How about that production, though?!
MNEK – “Colour” (Feat. Hailee Steinfeld)
MNEK is one of the brightest young pop stars in the UK, and Hailee Steinfeld’s transition from actress to singer has been more successful than I ever would have believed. Which is to say: I was expecting something better than this. “Colour” puts a skip in my step, but it’s completely unmemorable.
Allie X – “Focus”
Pop-blog fave Allie X is pretty hit-or-miss, but “Focus” is one of her best — a synth-pop ballad that has me dreaming of what Chvrches’ mainstream makeover might have been.
Why Don’t We – “Hooked”
I’m still waiting for one of these new boy bands to score an actual hit.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Kim Petras, who has previously defended Dr. Luke, responded to the backlash after she was announced as an opener on Troye Sivan’s tour. [Billboard]
- In other Sivan news, he released a video for “Bloom.” [YouTube]
- Demi Lovato took heat on Twitter after describing a prank on her bodyguard that sounded like sexual harassment. [Billboard]
- Maren Morris debuted a new song, “The Feels,” opening for Niall Horan in Brisbane. [YouTube]
- Sugarland’s “Babe” video, featuring Taylor Swift and Brandon Routh, is out on Saturday. [YouTube]
- The Weeknd announced a new Beats 1 radio show, Memento Mori. [Instagram]
- The promo video for Harry Styles’ Gucci campaign features a chicken and a Beatles cover. [YouTube]
- Shawn Mendes did a Late Late Show residency including a Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]
- Steve Aoki, Lil Yachty, and AJR address Instagram culture in their “Pretender” video. [YouTube]
- Selena Gomez released a video for “Back To You.” [YouTube]
- Future’s Superfly soundtrack will feature Lil Wayne, Khalid, Young Thug, 21 Savage, Miguel, and PARTYNEXTDOOR. [Twitter]
- Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Jack White, and Carrie Underwood lead the lineup for the iHeartRadio Music Festival. [iHeart]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME