Ella Mai explores vibrant, messy love on ‘Heart on My Sleeve’

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In 2018, Ella Mai broke into the R&B mainstream with “Boo’d Up,” a beautifully simple yet catchy anthem of summer love. On her self-titled debut album, she solidified herself as an incredibly astute singer-songwriter with an acute ear for captivating melodies and exploring powerful clashes — romance and heartbreak, hope and pessimism.

Now, Mai’s sophomore album Heart on My Sleeve, released May 6, lives up to its namesake: She puts everything on the table, singing of love in all its messy beauty.

Mai isn’t afraid to wander into emotional territory. However, the album frames her vulnerability as a choice rather than a weakness, presenting her as brave rather than fragile. “If I had to choose who to break my heart baby it’ll be you,” she sings on the candid “Break My Heart,” in which she lets down her guard and opens herself up to love. Mai’s resiliency and honesty propel her through each track, allowing her to explore a range of feelings with fluid authenticity.

With her smooth, sweetened vocals, Mai’s voice is immediately recognizable. She demonstrates steady yet effortless control, seamlessly transitioning between a honeyed belt and a ringing mixed voice. On “Not Another Love Song,” Mai begins in a low alto before gliding into a lilting series of “ahhs,” her voice gently rising and falling over a dynamic trap beat.

Much like Mai’s vocals, the instrumentation frequently shifts and shimmers, reflecting the unpredictability of love. A rhythmic percussion buzzes beneath “Fallen Angel” before transitioning into an impassioned gospel choir. Building off this melody, Mai laments a failed relationship in the opening moments of “How” before declaring, “I’m back, I’m on my shit again.” Though Mai explores each emotion with candor, she never dwells for too long. Rather, she allows the natural progression of feelings to flow as they may, contradictory yet natural in their dizzying appeal.

On her debut album, Mai proved herself a master of the musical bridge; on Heart on My Sleeve, her construction work is even stronger. During “Sink or Swim,” she revels in her enviable vocal range in a heartfelt plea to a former lover before shifting back into the rhythmic chorus. Rather than treating the bridge as a structural necessity, Mai uses it as a vehicle to augment emotional appeal, casting her subjects in a different, more meaningful light.

Much of Mai’s allure lies in the simultaneous simplicity and maturity of her music. An easygoing listening experience, “Boo’d Up” is both relatable and unique, with Mai’s play on words between finding a boyfriend and mimicking a heartbeat refreshing and fun. Throughout Heart on My Sleeve, Mai’s songwriting skills shine in a similar manner. “Don’t fuck me up, don’t let me down,” she sings on single “DFMU.” Though not seeming particularly profound on their own, the lyrics glimmer with emotional complexity when layered over the delicate piano and titillating trap beat. She strikes a perfect balance between being direct and intricate; the more one closely listens, the more the track reveals its nuance.

In many ways, the beauty of Heart on My Sleeve comes in what Mai doesn’t say. Even when she’s at a loss for words, she gets her point across with sharpness and clarity. “I don’t need it/ I don’t want it/ Less it feels like, ooh,” she sings on the sultry “Feels Like.” She may not directly say what she means, but her mesmerizing vocals fill in the gaps.

Ella Mai has proven herself a powerful songwriter from her career’s beginning, but on Heart on My Sleeve, she shines even brighter. She imbues each song with tenderness and honesty, showing that love may be daunting, but it’s so worth it in the end. With her romantic brand of R&B, Mai is smoothly and masterfully solidifying her place in the music scene.

Simply feeling like ooh, the experience of listening to Heart on My Sleeve cannot be fully put into words — catchy and cathartic, it’s a musical representation of what it means to love.

Lauren Harvey is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].