2018 has been the year of Ella Mai. Her lovestruck tune “Boo’d Up” popped up around the social media sphere over the summer, and its inescapable catchiness catapulted the 23-year-old songstress into the spotlight. Fast forward to a few months later, the British R&B artist is a special guest for Bruno Mars on his 24K Magic World Tour and performing the song that started it all at the American Music Awards this week.
In the midst of the whirlwind, Mai is releasing her self-titled debut album on Friday (Oct. 12) and with song titles like “Emotion” and “Gut Feeling,” it’s a nod to the romance of throwback R&B she loves so much—with a modern treatment.
“I think a lot of people thought R&B is dead, which I don’t understand how anyone could think that,” she explained to Billboard. “In my opinion, it’s the best genre in the world. Music is personal preference, but R&B definitely tackles love the way it happens. There’s no beating around the bush with R&B.”
Ahead of performing “Boo’d Up” at the AMAs on Oct. 9, Mai delivered an additional performance of “Trip” on the same stage for a special video available to fans after the show exclusively on Xfinity On Demand. Billboard chatted with the songstress about her debut album, love and her Xfinity Encore performance.
You went from having a few EPs out to all of a sudden, performing at the AMA’s, you’re on tour with Bruno Mars and you also get to provide fans with a really unique opportunity to see more of you in the Xfinity Encore performance. How does it all feel?
It’s been really surreal honestly, to put it into words.It’s something that I’ve dreamed up ever since I was little and then when it actually starts happening you’re like “ wait is this a dream or is it actually a reality?” It’s been amazing and I’m super excited to perform and give my fans a special experience with the encore song. Just to be here, I’m honored.
“Boo’d Up” had an exponential slope of popularity and became almost like an unofficial 2018 love song. When you wrote it, did you know that this was the song that would stick?
I had no clue. I love the song and I still do as much as I did even after all the success. The success didn’t make me love it more, I always loved it. We definitely didn’t know that this was going to be the one. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated for a song that’s so R&B to do what “Boo’d Up” has done or is doing. We definitely didn’t realize. We were just making music that we love, and luckily it hits.
Your album comes out on Friday and it has these crazy collaborations, including John Legend, H.E.R., and your recent single with Chris Brown. How did that happen?
The Chris Brown feature happened actually a year ago. Chris Brown was the first celebrity or musician to really tap into “Boo’d Up” and say, “Wow I really love this song.” He was on his Instagram story playing it before it blew up the way it had this year. So, it happened organically. We reached out after we saw it and he followed me on Instagram and everything. I went into the studio with him and I had the song already. I was like, “I have this song and the only person I would want on this song is Chris Brown. So we’re going to wait until we get it!” And we waited long enough and luckily we got it. He was so excited to be in the studio with me and he was telling me what a fan he is of my music, which is insane because I’m such a huge Chris Brown fan. It’s supposed to be the other way around!
I didn’t actually get to work in the studio with John Legend or H.E.R., but I met H.E.R. at the BET awards in June. I really wanted her on the album because as females in R&B, especially both coming up as new artists, a lot of the time everyone in the world and in the media can pit you against each other and make it a competition. Although we both make R&B music, we both make different types of R&B music but it blends so well together. I was so excited to meet her. She brought me out when she was opening up for Chris Brown to do “Boo’d Up” in New York. I played her the song and told her to let me know what she thinks. She loved it and sent me back her verse maybe a couple days later. That’s how the song came about and it’s maybe one of my favorites on the album. I know when I released the track list, everyone was like, “This is what I’ve been waiting for!”
And of course, John Legend, who is a legend no pun intended. I’m excited for everyone to hear us on a track together because I don’t think it’s a collaboration that anyone expected, but once they saw it, I think everyone was like this makes so much sense. The H.E.R. song and the John Legend songs are again love songs, but they’re kind of a twist on it. We all know that love isn’t very black and white.
Speaking of love, the singles you released so far have a pretty relatable theme of how tough is it to be vulnerable and shed a tough exterior. Is there any advice you have on letting yourself be vulnerable?
I think it takes a lot of time, effort and communication, but it’s also about how you feel about yourself with that person. I think in a lot of situations, you can like the idea of someone but you don’t like what that person makes you or you might feel like you’re changing. Or it could be the complete other way and you’re like, “I love how this person makes me feel,” and they make me want to be a better person and do better. It’s all about that gut feeling you have inside, and I always say you should go with your first intuition. But you definitely have to be sure of yourself and what you have to offer, and whoever the person is on the receiving end is not trying to change that or make you different because they should love you for you. But, again, that all starts from within.
As a female in music, knowing your worth is empowering.
Yes, of course. I think in such a male-dominated industry, it can sometimes get overlooked. Not me luckily, but those growing up in a social media age where everything looks so amazing online and people only show you what they want to show you—a 13-year-old can go on Instagram and see all these different girls, all these different houses and cars and think that this is real life, and social media isn’t exactly real life. It can really mess with people mentally and we don’t even realize because we are so addicted to being on our phones, so I think it’s a really important message especially to young girls. You should love yourself for who you are and how God made you and you shouldn’t idolize what someone else has.
What song are you most excited for fans to hear on the album?
That’s a tough one. I’ve been trying to figure that out because it changes every day but I would say, in these past couple days, it’s the third song on the album called “Dangerous.” It’s about love again, [chuckles] my favorite topic. Basically, Eve had this song called “Love Is Blind”—“Love is blind/And it’ll take over your mind.” And it’s like, you can love someone so much that a situation can become something that it’s not but you really think it is, and you become clouded. “Dangerous” is not as on the negative side of that, but it’s about understanding that this could be dangerous. I like you so much that I need to relax a bit.