“It just won’t stop, it go”
While Ella Mai may be describing her heart in “Boo’d Up,” she may be more aptly describing her music career thus far. Discovered by DJ Mustard in mid-2015 via Instagram, Mai had released three EPs under his label 10 Summers Records by early 2017. Her debut EP, Time, was released in February 2016 and featured the fantastic “She Don’t (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)” — her most popular song on Spotify, with more than 13 million streams. Since then, Mai has released “Change” and “Ready;” she performed two songs from each EP for her June 23 set at the Hearst Greek Theatre.
“Boo’d Up” served as Mai’s opening number in her set, her performance being the supporting act for Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage World Tour. Notably, Mai was the only female opener for the show, and she performed sans band.
As soon as Mai stepped onstage, her charisma wafted over the crowd. Following “Boo’d Up,” Mai launched into “Don’t Want You,” an electric, catchy diss track. Mai played up the live audience, allocating a greater gravitas to the song’s bass drop than on her recording. Accordingly, the crowd erupted at its arrival, grooving to the synth-wave beat until they settled into a calibrated sway.
Aware of her time limitations, Mai decided to play with tempo. “Do you mind if I slow it down and really sing to you for a second?” she asked. Where before she had paced the stage as she performed, she began “Found,” off her second EP, with a still earnestness. Standing center stage, she clasped her mic stand and interchanged between belting and crooning the love song’s saccharine sweet lyrics.
With “Anymore,” Mai returned to her break-up anthem niche. Skipping the title in the chorus, Mai appeared genuinely affected by the fans singing it in her place. In the live performance, Mai brought to life the song’s delicious beat, increasing her passion with each rendition of its chorus.
Though “Found” is a slow dance of a love song, “10,000 Hours” plays like pure poetry. The lyrics “You know every second, adds up to a minute, need 10,000 hours,” rival the opening lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Of the songs she performed, “10,000 Hours” best highlighted Mai’s mezzo-soprano range — her voice floating in the air in its moments of soprano-love — and featured a hook that the crowd took and danced with, jamming and singing along, repeating back to Mai, “We can be so in love.”
The song’s power and theatrics were dramatized live, with Mai refusing to give it the love song seriousness she allowed “Found,” instead jumping across the stage and engaging the crowd, singing to her fans with far more passion than she would ever allow a lover through her lyrics.
“We say no to fuckboys, right?” she asked the crowd. Amid their cheers of agreement, Mai began her final song, the only song she could end her set with: “She Don’t.” The crowd, which before had engaged with half-familiarity, erupted with a volume unparalleled by any noise they’d made before. From her opening vocalization, the entire audience screamed and yelled, as if just realizing the popular song was sung by the performer in front of them.
Thriving on the crowd’s renewed energy, Mai provided plenty of opportunities for the crowd to sing along. Her prior unconquerable stage presence became infallible. Even her lighting, which had previously been simple, but effective — a color mood-based design that switched to a corresponding color for each song — pulled out all of the strobe light and gradient stops.
Though Mai tended to vocally deviate in the final chorus for every song she performed, with slight improvizations that improved each tremendously, it was her vocalizing on the last chorus of the night that left the crowd cheering at each high note she hit and elongated, a fantastic closing to her set.
By the time she left the stage, Mai not only warmed up the crowd for Kehlani, she made herself a name to remember.
Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].