Ella Mai – Time (Review)

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10 Summers (2016)

With the plethora of R&B leaking into our ear drums during 2016 so far, DJ Mustard’s feisty songtress needed to hit the ground running. Luckily, with the help of an ever-maturing Mustard, Mai’s poignant vocal lines really cut through the noise. Led by the Ty Dolla $ign assisted single “She Don’t,” the new 10 Summers signee produced a stunning EP and lot of promise for the future.

In curating this EP, the Londoner hones in on a classic R&B trope: the breakup. On the first track, “Switch Sider,” Mai’s voice glides triumphantly over dark club synths demonstrating that, despite the opinions of others, she is sticking by her man. The confidence that oozes from this track’s declaration of allegiance bears a striking resemblance to that of 2Pac’s “Me and My Girlfriend,” albeit from a female perspective.

The song draws to a close and some gentle keys trickle in, leaving Mai rather pensive. As she reflects on the sorry state of affairs that her relationship has become, we move seamlessly into the second track: “She Don’t” – and what a gorgeous track. This is where the chemistry between producer and singer reach boiling point. An angelic yet funky mixture of electric piano and flute flood the soundscape, leaving us begging for the DJ’s club-ready snaps. As the track gets underway, Mai’s playful melodies compliment the instruments perfectly. She delivers a buoyant, almost blasé, dismissal of her unfaithful lover, stressing her indifference towards his new playmate. The conviction with which she purrs, “Bet she doesn’t touch like me / Sure as hell don’t fuck like me” leaves no doubt in the listener’s mind regarding who took an L here.

Despite Ella’s glistening voice, the role of the man behind the boards should not be downplayed. Along with his tempo, it seems as though Mustard’s found a slew of other goodies recently: Namely, more varied drum patterns, some delicious soundbanks, and most importantly – the ability to dial in some complex melodies. These tools truly manifest themselves as the EP unfolds. Take “Don’t Want You,” for example. We are immediately plunged into a dark bassy soundscape accompanied by synth droplets drenched in reverb. Mai takes this opportunity to be candid, her soft vocals speaking of pain: “I was there when you needed me the most so I’m in my feelings.” This is evidently pain inflicted by an unequal exchange of loyalty. It seems, then, as the track progresses further, the listener may begin to question whether Mai’s triumphant dismissal was merely a front; however, at around the one minute mark, an eruption occurs: The drums double in speed while a screaming synth pattern soars over them; meanwhile, Mai’s voice switches from soft to powerful, as she casts aside her self-pity and exclaims, “I don’t want you no more”. This track truly demonstrates Mustard’s ability to turn any sonic situation into a club banger.

As the EP draws to a close, however, the mood gets darker. The eerie, almost skit-length, “Old Dog, New Bitch” exhibits the frostier side of Ella Mai. Bleak, heavily filtered synths and punchy drums provide the perfect platform for the spirited singer to explain the deal to her ex: If you fuck someone behind my back – I’ll do the same. The surprisingly gritty vibe of this track offers a compelling counterpoint to rest of the EP; this girl doesn’t just fuck with bubble gum R&B – she’s enigmatic and versatile.

However, just as the guard goes up, it seems to come crashing down again: on the final track, “A Thousand Times,” we experience such a beautiful poignancy in Mai’s delivery, that it almost renders the bitterness on the track prior to it obsolete; this is Ella at her purest. As a melancholic yet conclusive chord progression initiates the track, Mai truly relinquishes her inhibitions. Although we find Mai issuing another dismissal of her former lover, this one is different: There is a profound agony in her voice which is missing elsewhere. This crescendo of agony explodes in the chorus, where Mai’s sustained vocals engulf the track. “I hope you fall and you break your heart like you broke mine” she cries, letting slip a piece of information she had held back thus far. With this in mind, it would appear as though the playfulness, bitterness and downright indifference exhibited elsewhere by Mai were merely bandages; bandages that fell apart as she opened up on the tumultuous conclusion of her first project.

If I was to bring to light one gripe, however, it would simply be that too many of the tracks are club-oriented, especially given the project’s rather austere themes. Alas, what did I expect from a DJ Mustard signee? That being said, what Ella Mai has articulated profoundly in these five tracks is the spectrum of emotional stages one experiences when going through a breakup: denial, feigned indifference, bitterness, and finally – acceptance.

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