Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Review)

prima
Def Jam / ARTium (2016)

Rising to fame alongside his West Coast compatriots, Odd Future, Vince Staples has been quietly becoming a major player in hip-hop and, in my opinion, surpassing his stylistic kinsmen. While Tyler struggled to make a tightly focused LP and Earl was still forming his sound, Staples dropped Summertime ’06 – a project that belongs in any conversation for the best hip-hop album of 2015. The production was immaculate: with a heady mixture of No I.D., DJ Dahi and Clams Casino behind the boards, the soundscapes were evocative and had a distinctive West Coast bounce. Staples took full advantage of the star-studded production cast (helped by Def Jam’s pregnant budget), elucidating his Long Beach tales with sincerity and an occasional shrug of the shoulders.

This year, Vince is back with a new EP, Prima Donna, which might not reach the dizzy heights of Summertime, but is certainly a very compelling (and rather harrowing) little project. Linking up with beatsmiths No I.D., DJ Dahi and London-based singer/producer James Blake, Staples tackles issues such as police brutality, gentrification and more subtly – his personal existential crisis.

In a recent interview with Dazed & Confused, Vince said: “I don’t lie, I don’t necessarily care enough about music or anything else.” Moreover, in speaking of his career, he had the following to say: “Worst case scenario is that it doesn’t work, and what does that even mean?” What we can gather from these two statements, then, is that Staples has an obsession with meaning, or indeed a manifest lack of it, with respect to music (certainly his music) and life more generally. He is obsessed with questions like “What makes me so special because I’m a rapper?”, and “OK, I’m finally a rapper. What now?” These sorts of problems plague many hip-hop artists, but not quite as profoundly as Vince.

The EP is littered with irony that demonstrates these issues. Firstly, the EP itself is titled Prima Donna. Vince Staples is the exact opposite of a Prima Donna: He does not seem to hold his artistry in high esteem whatsoever. Secondly, on the opening track, “Let it Shine,” Vince awkwardly mumbles, “This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine,” into nothingness, sounding like the class doofus being forced to sing. Vince is desperately trying to play himself down; he even edits his face on the artwork to make himself look stupid. The effect of all this is chilling, and makes the energy provided by tracks like “War Ready,” “Smile” and “Loco” all the more potent. This is the real irony of it all: Vince has no reason to play himself down; his intelligence and ability to curate projects is staggering.

Anyway, Dahi’s wild guitars on “Smile” yank us out of Vince’s hypnotic funk for a portion of the tape, while Vince raps, “I feel my life is in danger every night when I lay / So can you do me a favour – smile for me.” However, when the track cuts out, mumbling Vince is back: “Don’t say you feel my pain / Cuz I don’t even feel myself / Blood rushin’ through my brain / sometimes I wanna kill myself.” Given what I have already brought to light, I needn’t unpack this for you – needless to say, it doesn’t make for easy listening. What I will say, however, is this: It is evident that Vince isn’t necessarily sad – he’s completely numb – and this jarring change in energy is his unique way of exhibiting it.

The Dahi produced “Loco” with Kilo Kush has a similar sonic blueprint to “Smile.” Kush’s vocals lend the track a distinctive Azealia Banks feel, while Dahi’s metallic wobs keep it rave-ready. Alas, as you might expect, Vince cuts the energy short once more for another stream of mumbling, refusing to let you settle in. Moving forward, however, Staples switches it up on title track, “Prima Donna:” The harmonised hook stands in stark contrast to the other, more dissonant, hooks. What’s more, Vince’s mumbling turns its gaze outward: Utterances such as “Fed up with the young dying” and “Fed up with the gang banging” spill from Staples’ mouth. Again, his concerns are obvious – these things are happening for no reason; they lack any real meaning – and Staples can’t take it anymore.

No I.D. and Blake bring some pretty strange synths to the table for the final quarter, and after his most seminal rant, Staples’ eschews the mumbling. Instead, he uses this space for a bit of flexing, playing with various flows and rhyme schemes while keeping the hooks short and snappy. However, these tracks do nothing to diminish the conceptual obscurity of the rest of the tape, and indeed they shouldn’t: Staples’ propensity to get in his own way is what affords this EP it’s ominous charm. It is the ultimate exhibition of Vince Staples’ fucked up psyche. And I love it.

Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Review)

danny-brown-atrocity-exhibition
Warp (2016)

Rap’s favourite psycho, Danny Brown, has released another album. For those that don’t know, Danny Brown rose to fame on the strength of his sophomore LP – XXX, seemingly kick-starting a run of projects that would have a profound impact on hip-hop. Atrocity Exhibition, a title lifted from a Joy Division track, is the third instalment in Danny’s depraved adventure and a firm nod towards the LP’s sonic flavour. However, it should be noted that the title also belongs to an experimental novel by J.G. Ballard, a key theme of which is psychosis. Now, I wouldn’t put it past Danny to read such an obscure novel (there is a chapter called “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan”), and I can assert without hesitation that psychosis is a theme shared by both works.

Anyway, Danny Brown can arguably (and perhaps impertinently) be summed up in the following manner: a drug-abusing, drug-slinging maniac with a devotion to hip-hop, and an uncanny ability to generate an unparalleled range of noises with his vocal chords; a new listener may simply mistake him for six different iterations/reincarnations of ODB. You don’t have to listen to too many tracks before you discover that he likes it raw.

After flirting with a gaudy, electronic sound that had many listeners wide-eyed and stiff-jawed on Old, Danny and frequent collaborator Paul White extend their musical net much further this time. Electronic production is fused with everything from punk to jazz, framing his tales of narcotics and poor mental health in a new light. Instrumentation from tracks like “Ain’t It Funny” and Alchemist’s “White Lines” wouldn’t sound out of place at a circus. Probably not a normal circus, though: think less Cirque du Soleil, and more Pennywise hoovering up a gram of coke and skipping around like a freak.

One of Danny’s strengths, and perhaps what affords his schizophrenic yapping a degree of clarity and order, is the intricate manner in which he weaves his projects together, elucidating them through reference to each other. On XXX’s opening track, Danny raps: “It’s the downward spiral / Got me suicidal.” On Atrocity Exhibition’s opener, Danny takes this harrowing bar and puts a magnifying glass over it. However, there are no mentions of “Squidward” or “his clarinet;” instead we are left with pure anguish as Danny howls, with a seemingly increased psychotic inflection, over dissonant guitars and plummeting bass. The significance of expanding on this microcosmic bar, then, is that it demonstrates from the get-go that Brown is still firmly on the descent – or perhaps in a crumpled heap at the bottom.

For the most part, we find Danny hovering at the nexus between shrewd intelligence and pure insanity. A feat that might seem illogical, or even impossible, before listening to this LP. Bars like “Some people say I think too much / I don’t think they think enough” on “Rolling Stone,” and the manner in which he flits between Danny Brown and André 3000 while encapsulating and rationalising his whole reckless philosophy on “Today,” demonstrate Brown’s genius. Both of these tracks, however, sandwich the middle third of the album, some of which arguably belongs in a mental asylum. On “Dance In The Water,” Danny babbles frantically over drums and vocals ostensibly sourced from a samba festival, sounding like a nutcase trying to tame a Rottweiler. At times, he sounds as though he is two bars away from an actual breakdown; if XXX was a concept album about desperation, Atrocity Exhibition is surely a concept album about full-blown insanity. That being said, these tracks certainly add something to Brown’s enigmatic catalogue, and at no point over-stay their welcome; just as you think he’s losing the plot, he’ll reel you in with one of his pearls: “So much coke / Take a sniff need a ski lift” (“Ain’t It Funny”).

Moving forward, let’s talk about the singles. On the latter half of the rave-centric Old, the singles “Dip” and “Smokin & Drinkin” playing back-to-back sounded a bit like an extended cut of the crackhead’s “Harlem Shake,” throwing Side B a little off-axis for me. Atrocity Exhibition, however, is bolstered with all the right singles in all the right places. The Black Milk produced “Really Doe” is perfect: Earl, Kendrick and Ab-Soul trade bars triumphantly over eerie bells, proving themselves as the ideal trio to support Danny. On the Evian Christ produced “Pneumonia,” we find Danny doing a rare bit of peacocking over raucous clanging, interspersed occasionally with Schoolboy Q’s signature ad-libs. “When It Rain,” however, steals the day: White and Brown generate a beautiful, brand-new piece of wack-jobbery, while still remaining true to “the old Danny Brown.”

The album draws to a close on a strange note (no surprises there). “Hell For It” begins with stuttered piano runs, Danny quick to condemn anyone who has questioned his art. He reiterates a bold statement from his first album, Hybrid: “Tell myself everyday / The greatest that’s alive.” However, more interestingly, he brings to light a purpose to his music that he has omitted thus far: “I lived through that shit so you don’t have to go through it / Stepping stones in my life hot coals walk with me.” It’s funny – although Danny doesn’t shut up about topics like drug addiction, he never makes them seem glamorous – in fact, he makes them seem fucking scary; I’m pretty sure that if you were to play “White Lines” at the end of a D.A.R.E. convention, kids wouldn’t touch coke with a barge-pole. So, with that in mind, perhaps there is method behind his madness.

Collard – Clean Break (Review)

collard
Self-released (2016)

Josh Collard: A former member and co-founder of the London-based art collective Last Night In Paris who, this September, decided it was time to showcase his talent individually; he dropped his debut EP. He’s been around for a minute now, though. Spitting standout verses on LNIP posse cuts like “Own Me,” Collard has already demonstrated his skill and versatility, constantly finessing his unique formula of scorching sixteens and heavenly hooks. With the arrival of this EP, however, it seems as though Collard has truly found his lane: Zach Nahome’s razor-sharp, psychedelic soundscapes provide the perfect backdrop for Collard’s smouldering vocals, generating a sparkling sequence of tracks.

So, we begin with “Walls Of Jericho.” Nahome initiates the track with some silky keys, closely followed by some pitched-up vocal moans, a production trend we’ve come to associate with the LNIP clan. It is clear why: The pitched-up vocals are juxtaposed perfectly with Collard’s low, raspy flow, creating a two-pronged vocal attack from the top and bottom end. Collard directs his bars at a particular female, spitting with an air of nonchalance as he describes a relationship fraught with frustration and lust. At the root of this frustration seems to be the disparity between their two lifestyles: “Way too different / The boy live different” he raps, seemingly unperturbed by the irreconcilability of their ways. As the drums drop out, however, we hear something perhaps contrary to this. As the hook begins, Collard’s voice soars to the rafters and utters, “I pray my walls don’t fall down on me.” Perhaps the “walls” he’s referring to here, are the cold barbs he throws at his girl, keeping her at a distance to avoid catching feelings. The stark contrast between the hook and the verses are compelling, not only sonically, but also in terms of content: There is an internal struggle between R&B artist and hip-hop artist; a struggle between one who fucks for love, and one who loves to fuck, shall we say.

Collard’s soothing vocals and Nahome’s gorgeous guitar bring the track to a close, and seamlessly kick-start the next: “Arrival.” However, the tempo of this one is much different. Our ears are immediately swamped in slow, drugged-out riffs and pitch-bent bass, indicating that Collard’s been sipping on something. This thought is further solidified when he starts rhyming, his voice sluggish and heavily pitched-down. “I’m not the one that you should be with / I’m a nigger that you cheat with” he growls, continuing his verses in a similar vein to the first track. This time, however, we have learnt not to trust Collard’s cold exterior so easily. His brash, intoxicated utterances, then, are perhaps an indication of the toll this relationship has taken on him emotionally.

As Collard’s drunken monologue draws to a close, soft howls begin to soar over the top leaving just enough room for Nahome’s psychedelic riffs to ring out through the trundling soundscape. These elements begin to warp and eventually come to a halt, signalling the start of the third song and, in my opinion, the most seminal: “Burning Truth.” Here, the EP begins to move in a different direction. Perhaps Collard’s liquored-up lashings on the previous track sparked a more serious row, as his sincerity is palpable. Poignant, muffled piano sets the tone for the track, closely followed by Collard as he immediately opens up: “Never compromise your virtues / Girl I swear they don’t deserve you,” he croons. As the intro unfurls, Collard’s elegant hook is complimented by more stunning riffs from Nahome, further demonstrating the duo’s undeniable chemistry. When punchier drums arrive, so do Collard’s husky bars. This time, however, there is an urgency to them that was missing before; his voice quivers as he efforts to rhyme his way back into his girl’s life. As the verse reaches its climax, Nahome’s anthemic, rock-infused production goes up another level, his guitar doing all the talking: low, driving chords interspersed with screaming melodic flecks burst through the track, generating an atmosphere fit for Glastonbury. Collard seizes this opportunity, delivering the hook and various adlib-like cries with gusto until the instrumentation provided by Nahome begins to fade.

Finally, we reach the project’s conclusion. Despite his best efforts, it seems as though Collard’s passionate ode on the previous track didn’t resonate; “Departure” begins on a rather sombre note. Nahome dials in another riff that John Frusciante would be proud of, while Collard’s piercing voice cut through the upper register once more, exhibiting the EP’s subtle transition from hip-hop to post-rock. “You fell in love with me for fun” he cries, venting his sorrows over the hypnotic melody. As the track continues, more flutters from Nahome’s guitar come through to compliment the initial riff, while the pain in Collard’s haunting vocal lines steadily intensifies. The rapper that we heard on “Walls Of Jericho” seems so far removed from the singer that we hear now; yet, maybe this is what we should expect: hip-hop’s archetypal attitude towards women perhaps doesn’t provide a wide enough platform for Collard’s true feelings to manifest. That is, if a hip-hop artist really wants to explore the emotional implications of a break-up, they must look beyond hip-hop.

Anyway, as the track winds down, we hear a muffled announcement from an airport departure lounge before the track fades out. It is evident, then, that “Departure” has a dual meaning. On the one hand, it represents the lovers’ emotional departure from each other. On the other, it represents Collard’s jet-setting lifestyle, and particularly, the failure of this lifestyle to properly integrate with his girl’s – a theme present throughout the EP. Another key motif, however, and a further reason for the lovers’ emotional departure, is the dichotomy between rapper and singer: Collard paints a vivid picture of his internal struggle, using his impressive vocal range to create contrasting emotional mouth-pieces and communicate his story with a striking degree of clarity.

So, in conclusion, Collard and Nahome cover a lot of ground for a four-track EP, embracing various genres and exploring themes which your average hip-hop artist may fear to tread. The consequence of this: a sonically beautiful and extremely self-aware project. If this doesn’t make a splash by the end of 2016, expect great things from these two next year.

Mac Miller – The Divine Feminine (Review)

mac-miller-the-divine-feminine
Warner Bros. (2016)

Mac Miller has come an awful long way since his frat-rap days, with his album concepts and lyrical content becoming more complex with each release. With Watching Movies and GO:OD AM, Mac experimented with new sounds, dabbled behind the boards and explored areas of his spaced-out psyche that perhaps many would fear to tread. His latest release, however, The Divine Feminine, brings with it a new context: Mac is, for the first time in a long time, sober; there is little to no mention of drugs on this project. Moreover, he is in love: although his relationship with Ariana Grande may have only burgeoned as the album’s production drew to a close, its profound effect on the project as a whole is clear. The upshot of these things: The Divine Feminine is concise, candid and arguably Mac’s best project thus far.

Wait – I know what you’re thinking: Mac Miller stumbles around on egg shells, loosely attempting, but ultimately failing, to define feminism for an hour. However, I don’t think this is the case at all: The Divine Feminine sounds more like a buoyant, playful ode to how the fairer sex can enrich our lives. The role of the mother, friend, sister and – perhaps most importantly – lover, all manifest themselves sonically on these ten tracks, as Mac gleefully guides us around his jaunty new world. However, this album isn’t merely about love, but rather it demonstrates how love can liberate us. Namely: how love can liberate us from our inhibitions; how love can liberate us from the shackles of addiction; and how love can liberate us sexually.

A particular problem I’d like to highlight with this project from the outset, however, is that Mac errs too often on the side of carnality rather than simply romance. In fact, he often seems to get the two confused: “I open up your legs headin’ straight for your heart,” he raps on “Skin.” That being said, this confusion could well be a deliberate theme. On the album opener, “Congratulations,” we hear Mac rambling, “love, love, love” over a wistful piano riff, interspersed occasionally with pitched-down outbursts of “sex.” We have a clear demonstration, here, that Mac can’t ruminate on the concept of love without his mind immediately wandering back to sex. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; perhaps Mac is tapping into something important. I mean, if we strip away all of a particular male’s ill-informed attempts to define their love for a woman, what do we have left? Probably just a hard-on. Love supervenes on the bio-chemical, see?

Anyway, flippancy aside, whatever it is that Mac’s hooked on, it’s certainly charging his creative freedom: we find him singing more than we do rapping! Although you wouldn’t describe his voice as angelic, I think Mac’s idiosyncratic crooning, much like Eminem’s on “Hailie’s Song,” is a lovely exhibition of a young man who is finally happy – all thanks to love. Take the Ty Dolla $ign assisted “Cinderella,” for example. DJ Dahi’s eerie yet compelling soundscape sets the perfect tone, as Mac sings, “I’ve got angels / no more Satan’s.” I just can’t help but feel happy for the guy. Even Dolla $ign’s sweet – but still quite lecherous – vocals add a little something to the track. That being said, the best demonstration of Mac’s unbridled happiness surely has to be the gooey “My Favourite Part,” with Ariana Grande. Listening to Mac clumsily trade melodies with his new beau is just, well, lovely; like a dork who got the cheerleader, Mac just can’t contain his joy.

Who do Frank Dukes, DJ Dahi and Vinylz all have in common? Drake, of course. So, who would be better for Mac to tap when making a lovey-dovey album? Probably no-one. Frank Dukes, in particular, does a stellar job: his warm, plush pads; soft, scattered drums; and neo-soul inspired instrumentation provide the perfect platform for Mac’s gushing on tracks like “Stay.” Similarly, Dukes’ sun-burnt guitars on the CeeLo Green assisted “We” mimic perfectly the atmosphere of CeeLo’s collaboration with Outkast, “Liberation,” generating one of the best tracks on the album. In fact, the production team do so well in curating the album’s sonic template – fusing the sounds of funk, neo-soul and jazz-rap, yet still managing to integrate some of the more contemporary drums and synths – that it often outshines the vocals provided by Mac himself.

That being said, I don’t think Mac really cares. In a recent interview with Vogue, Mac asserts that he knows he “won’t ever sound like Al Green;” however, as I have said, Mac’s new-found penchant for singing is about something more than that: Namely – being happy. Joining Mac on his emotional journey from the drug-fuelled trough that was Watching Movies, all the way to the euphoric peaks of this project, is touching – not merely as a fan – but as a human being. The fact that he is singing despite not being very melodic, then, is the ultimate expression of this transformation, and certainly makes the album all the more poignant.

This poignancy reaches a beautiful climax during the last track. Mac and Kendrick’s psychedelic love ballad, “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty,” is the perfect conclusion; the pair both make their voices heard without unnecessary jostling for attention. As the smouldering guitar and piano riffs subside along with K-Dot’s soaring hook, however, we hear a brand-new voice: Mac’s Grandmother. Nanny, as she is referred to in the credits, proceeds gingerly to inform the listeners of her very own love story, detailing how she met her husband and their subsequent adventures together. This is a very personal touch by Mac, revealing a family story that he himself has “cried listening to,” and serves as another excellent demonstration of his transformation. Mac’s album is not filled with shock imagery or wayward attempts to appear “cool” anymore (i.e., not like Watching Movies). Instead, he has revealed scattered fragments of a vulnerable desire to love and be loved throughout his new project, whilst exuding a profound positivity that is frankly impossible not to like.

Jeremih -Late Nights: Europe (Review)

late-nights
Self-released (2016)

Looking to keep the ball rolling after dropping Late Nights: The Album, Jeremih hastily treats us to a follow-up project: Late Nights: Europe. Supposedly knocked together in two weeks while he was on tour, Jeremih gives us more of the angelic vocal lines that we love, while expanding on the more trappy themes that we heard on cuts like “Feel Like Phil” from his last project. Inspired by liquor-fuelled hunts for females as he travels an unfamiliar continent, Late Nights: Europe is the perfect ode to lust, drugs and, perhaps more broadly – fun.  The end  result is extremely pleasant and serves as a great demonstration of what R&B and trap can sound like when integrated in the correct manner.

So, we kick-off in “Dubai” (can somebody give this guy a fucking map?). Perhaps he is trying to prove a point concerning what he can do when his label isn’t whispering in his ear, nevertheless, Jeremih starts the tape on a much darker note than expected. An eerie music box cuts through the silence, closely followed by Jeremih exclaiming, “I came to fuck this shit up.” As the 808 starts thundering, we have already forgotten the dulcet tones oozing from his previous album.

By the third track, “Berlin (She Wit It),” however, we are back on familiar ground. Soundz sprinkles on some heavenly keys accompanied by ethereal synths, while Jeremih answers with some gorgeous melodies and a nice hook to boot. Continuing in a similar vein, the duo finesses this formula on stand-out track “Czech Republic:” Soundz sets a comfortable tempo with his keys again, leaving lots of room for Jeremih with his exquisite, harmonised chorus.

Who’s not jumping on the Dancehall trend? Jeremih certainly is and, in fairness, the track bangs. Tapping Stefflon Don and Krept & Konan for the London leg of the tape, the trio merge to form a unique blend of cultural flavours. Jeremih embraces the subtle change in genre, crooning, as he does so beautifully, over the delicate panpipes. The only real problem with this track is Konan’s stunted verse. Just as he seemed to be getting under way, hitting us with one of his wittier lines: “Coke bottle shape / I just wanna put my name on it” – we are hurled right back into the hook. Perhaps affording the pair a larger chunk of the track may have done the cultural merger a little more justice.

Anyway, elsewhere in the tape, Jeremih flexes his trap muscles; the Game assisted “Oslo, Norway” is perhaps the best demonstration of this. Soundz, who handles a hefty chunk of the production on the tape and plays a big part in its success, absolutely kills this one. Spiralling synth droplets bounce playfully off a melodic 808 pattern, while wraith-like vocals glide ominously over the top. As the beat drops and hi-hats buzz across the stereo field, Jeremih demonstrates his versatility with a particularly gravelly flow and gaudy hook, offering a refreshing counterpoint to his more honeyed vocals. Game, on the other hand, gets fairly explicit: “Fuck her homegirl put it in her rib” he raps; yet, this may not come as a surprise if you’ve seen his Instagram activity lately. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that his macho bars stink of desperation.

Moving forward, we get an excellent demonstration of the R&B/trap synthesis I mentioned elsewhere, on “Amsterdam.” While a distorted 808 pattern crashes through, we hear the evocative voice of a French girl adding a little je ne sais quoi to the intro (perhaps a lady-friend he met on tour?). As this subsides, Soundz dials in a menacing synth pattern which is juxtaposed beautifully with Jeremih’s melodic hook. However, bars like “On her hands and knees is all she down for,” keep the atmosphere from getting too light. The mood continues in this vein for “Hamburg,” with Soundz’ production getting steadily more obscure as the tape progresses; this is by no means a bad thing, however.

On “Copenhagen,” sexy guitar riffs and some playful rapport with Sonyae yank us out the darkness for the conclusion of the tape. This, I believe, is arguably the best song of the bunch. Why? Well, it seems that when Jeremih’s voice is matched with similarly velvety subject matter – namely love, not lust – we are rewarded with an angelic, irrefutable coherence. Now, don’t get me wrong: this track doesn’t leave me wishing for a different sort of tape from our songster, but rather it shines like a little beacon in contrast to some of the project’s grittier content.

There is, however, a bit of filler here and there: “Belgium,” “Lebanon” and the Ty Dolla $ign assisted “Paris” could have all got the cut in my opinion. Despite their glowing collaboration, “Impatient,” on Jeremih’s last project, the crooning duo just didn’t deliver the goods this time around; no-one said generating fourteen hooks in fourteen days would be easy.

The tape, however, is still an absolute success, considering: 1) Jeremih is exploring a new sound, and 2) He made it in two weeks! Not to mention the slew of bangers that he has provided. Hopefully, then, Jeremih will keep this rhythm going towards the end of 2016, perhaps blessing us with another tape before the year is out. Don’t get your hopes up though: Jeremih has wandered the R&B wilderness for years without dropping a tape before.

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.