June 12, 2024

Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream. 

Had I started this column on love songs in 2018, a mandatory inclusion would have been “Boo’d Up,” Ella Mai’s bright and youthful ballad about the wonders of catching feelings. The record was inescapable, not that I or anyone else I knew wanted to escape it. True fans of romantic R&B, including Mai herself, understood the importance of the eventual Grammy-winning single once it finally hit the charts a year after its 2017 release. Now on the eve of Heart On My Sleeve, her first full-length project since her breakthrough song and debut album, Ella Mai is back to claim her crown as the queen of cuffing anthems.

“I’m a lover girl,” Mai tells me in a chic Asian fusion restaurant, having just played her sophomore album for me and a group of other journalists. “I’m a Scorpio… Our exterior is really, really hard. But on the inside, we’re really sensitive and really passionate. I love to write love songs in any capacity. I definitely embrace it.”

Before the four-year hiatus separating Heart On My Sleeve from her self-titled LP, Ella Mai led a resurgence of female R&B acts in mainstream spaces; women who were definitively not pop and uninfluenced by Hip-Hop, but still appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 and landed on coveted Spotify playlists nonetheless. A renaissance like this hadn’t happened since the ‘90s. As noted by Rolling Stone’s Ellias Leight at the time, this sudden interest in singers such as Amber Mark and Queen Naija felt “indicative of the new climate” that Mai established with “Boo’d Up.” Yet, the difference between the UK songstress and her contemporaries is her hit single came in the form of a true love song, not a record about heartache or heartlessness.

Pre-“Boo’d Up,” the last female R&B act to score a hit even half as ubiquitous as Mai’s was SZA. The TDE singer’s “Love Galore,” in which she maintains, “Done with these ni**as/ I don’t love these ni**as/ I dust off these ni**as/ Do it for fun,” peaked at No. 32 on the Hot 100. After “Boo’d Up,” which peaked at No. 5 on the same chart, the floodgates reopened for more than one female R&B artist to flourish at a time—though none of their marquee records felt as romantic as Mai’s. Naija’s 2018 single, “Medicine,” is a sensual yet searing revenge fantasy aimed at an unfaithful ex, while Mark’s “Love Me Right,” released two months later, calls out lazy lovers whose actions don’t match their words.

Throughout Ella Mai’s star-making year, the rest of R&B embraced strife and sadness. This is also true of her four-year absence. While Mai was gone, Jazmine Sullivan reappeared after a hiatus of her own as a torchbearer telling tales of pain (“Lost One“) and underappreciated passion (“Girl Like Me“). And Summer Walker’s Over It and Still Over It burned with the heat of a thousand women scorned. Even male singers such as Blxst and Brent Faiyaz sound more influenced by toxic kings like Future and Drake than romantic bad boys of the Jodeci era. As Mai returns to inject her patented optimism into the mainstream, R&B sounds the most despondent it’s ever been.

The downtrodden state of the genre is something I spoke with producer D’Mile about in April. Following his Grammy-winning work with Silk Sonic and Lucky Daye, the R&B beatmaker has two placements on Mai’s forthcoming album. “Think about Summer Walker. She’s been through a lot. I know she’s speaking the truth in her music,” he argued at the time, defending artists best known for singing sad songs. “I think maybe even down to just personally in life, these artists need more love and they’re not really getting it. And they can only talk about what they are getting.”

At the listening event for Heart On My Sleeve, Mai agrees with her collaborator, noting a person’s art is most reflective of their experiences. When I ask whether her songs sound so romantic because she’s been especially lucky in love, she tells me, “A hundred percent. But I’m human. I’ve also had bad experiences with love. I think I’m just able to identify—even if it ended bad, or even if it went bad at one point—I’m able to identify the good.”

“I take more inspiration from that as opposed to what happened in the end,” she continues. “Or I take inspiration from the way I picked myself up from that as opposed to dwelling on the saga. It’s cool. That’s life. It happens. But how you deal with it, or the way [love] made you feel before, that’s way more important to me than the sadness.”

Aside from releasing three singles from the album, Ella Mai spent her time between LPs mostly touring, recording, and reflecting on love. Conversations with her friends and peers influence many of the songs on Heart On My Sleeve. One of those songs is “Fallen Angel,” a lovestruck jam that immediately stands out at the listening. The track is eventually played two more times at the request of frenzied journalists representing Billboard, Vulture, Okayplayer, and even this very site. Mai gushes over the response each time, as the record is one of her favorites from the album.

“I was so happy that it was everyone else’s favorite, too,” she tells me. “It’s really special to me because it’s an all-English record. It’s produced by an English producer, written by two English people—three English people including myself… I really enjoy working with people that I genuinely get along with, and it feels like friendship. It doesn’t feel like work at all. And we could just really be ourselves, and we would just have honest conversations about love.”

Similar conversations influenced the D’Mile-produced “Break My Heart” and the Lucky Daye-assisted “A Mess,” neither of which is as sad as their titles suggest. “I was literally going into the studio and saying exactly what was on my heart,” Mai explains. “Because this was my life in real-time. It just captures that element of me being vulnerable and emotional. It’s a scary feeling at the same time, but I’m really excited that people will probably feel like they get a little bit more of me, because I know I’m pretty reserved.”

Once they hear the album, listeners may find that receiving “more” of Mai doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get something unfamiliar. There are surprises throughout the record, but they’re ultimately anchored by the singer’s core tenets as an optimistic artist. Years later, Ella Mai is still the same woman who had grown men in nightclubs singing “Boo’d Up” as loud as teenage girls at junior prom; the same woman who briefly returned in 2020 with “Not Another Love Song,” which is absolutely another love song; and the same woman who’s as opposed to toxicity as this column is itself.

“I feel like toxic energy in relationships these days is praised,” she says, effectively preaching to a one-man choir. “And I understand sometimes it’s something that we’re not really that conscious of—patterns that we’re used to in previous relationships that we don’t even realize are a thing. But I don’t want that. I want to reciprocate energy.”

While I enjoy Yellow Diamonds more than anything I’ve ever worked on, contributing to an R&B column about love songs twice a week has been difficult. This is a result of how bogged down the genre has become with music either about being toxic or wallowing in the wake of dating someone toxic. But I feel encouraged upon hearing Ella Mai insist, “At my age, I’m too old for that.”

Maybe the industry will make room for more romantics who agree.

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