Ella Mai isn’t the same googly-eyed lovebird she was at 22. Though “Boo’d Up” became the unofficial soundtrack for budding relationships in 2017-2018, Mai, 27, is all grown-up and ready to embark on her sophomore era with her searingly honest single “DFMU.”
After a quiet 2021 campaign, highlighted by her certified gold record “Not Another Love Song,” Mai’s chilling new single is a complete 180. Loaded with Instagram-ready captions, most notably the song’s poignant hook, “Don’t f–k me up, don’t let me down,” Mai proves that despite her glossy track record with love, she too, isn’t resistant to heartbreak.
“Someone can be angry at you, sad with you, or upset with you, but disappointment from the people you love or being disappointed by someone you love, I think it’s the toughest pill to swallow,” she tells Billboard this week. “The ‘don’t let me down’ [part]… I still feel it, and if someone’s telling you that, ‘I’m really here for you, just don’t mess this up’, it’s like, “Damn, we’re here.'”
Along with self-discovery, Mai enjoyed her “bucket-list week,” which found her working alongside Pharrell and “her favorite rapper,” J. Cole. With new experiences on both the personal and career side, Mai is more than willing to give her fans every side of her, including the good, bad and ugly on album number two.
“This go-around, I’m a lot more vulnerable — and was thinking about my real-life experiences when I was recording,” says Mai. “When I listen back to the songs, it takes me back to the place I was in. Not in a super dark way — but even if it was in a super dark way, I’m human, and we’re still in a pandemic.”
Billboard sat down with Ella Mai to discuss her new single “DFMU,” hitting the studio with J. Cole and Pharrell, embracing change, and becoming an elite songwriter. You can also exclusively watch the video for “DFMU” below.
You said this week on Instagram that the sophomore era is here. Please tell me what the sophomore era consists of?
More R&B! It’s still me and it’s elevated. When I released my debut album, I was 23 about to be 24, and now I’m about to be 27. Just in life, I’m a different woman. I’m more mature and I’ve experienced different things than I did when I was a 23-year-old. I’m more sure of myself as an artist. I’ve been able to tour the world and I think that opens your eyes up a lot more. It’s me still and it’s just an elevated version. No pun intended.
The last time we spoke, I remembered you said you were embracing your womanhood and that new confidence was there. Aside from your new single “DFMU,” what songs on the album best display those new sides of you?
I’m going to say all of them. I know that’s probably the generic answer, but every song shows a little different side of me. You did hear it on the debut, but not in depth.
The process has definitely been different to my debut album process. I think I’ve embraced maturing and taking things as they come really well as just a person, let alone as an artist. I think that helps when it comes to embracing myself as an artist because I’m just in there being myself.
Talk about the process for putting together “DFMU.”
That song was one of the very, very early songs that I recorded for the second album. That was one of the first that we recorded — and ever since we recorded it, I just had this feeling about it. Not even about it as saying, “It will do so well,” [but] I’m just so connected to it, because it was exactly what I was going through at the time. I remember sitting down and I wrote the song with Prince Charlez — and I was just having an honest conversation with him about my life and I think that’s the best way that things come about.
Some people don’t realize that writing with people is intimidating… You have to sit there and be super vulnerable, and you don’t want to tell everyone your life story. If I just met you and walked into a session and I say, “Hi, I’m Ella,” and you said, “Hi, I’m Carl,” it’s cool — and then we play stuff and then what do we want talk about today? Do I want to spill my whole life to you about exactly what I’m going through, or do I keep it super vague? But then I’m not being truthful, so you have to find that happy medium.
I’ve been working with Prince Charlez since I’ve been coming to L.A., and he’s one of those people I’m just comfortable with, and is really competent in the studio session — because I don’t have to have any barriers up. Basically what the song is about is being there, and being ready to take on whatever relationship or [whatever] your feelings are, but wanting to have a conversation with the person to say, “Look, this is what it is… This is what I’m feeling, don’t mess this up. I’m here for whatever rollercoaster this is, but I need you to be here too.”
I think it’s a conversation that’s necessary for a lot of relationships, but I think you only feel that when you have a doubt. I think that doubt can come from past experiences, the reciprocation angle — like, maybe the person isn’t giving you exactly what you need, and I think there’s a lot of different aspects it can come from. I just sat down and had a conversation with him and that came about.
I’m one that’s been scarred one too many times. That’s why that line, “Don’t let me down” holds so much weight.
Someone can be angry at you, someone can be sad with you or upset with you — but disappointment from the people that you love or being disappointed by someone you love, I think it’s the toughest pill to swallow. Honestly, it’s really hard. The “Don’t let me down…” I still feel it, and if someone’s telling you that, “I’m really here for you just don’t mess this up.” It’s like, “Damn, we’re here.”
But it’s also, I think, a bit of pressure. If somebody told me “Don’t let me down,” I’m like, “Oh s–t, okay.” But I’m quite an intense person. Us Scorpios are gonna say it again. I’m an intense person so I think when I feel. I feel intensely.
On Twitter, you said Natasha Bedingfield’s “I Bruise Easily” was “songwriting at its finest.” As a songwriter, do you feel like you’ve reached that same level and if not, what do you think it will take to get to that point?
I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve gotten to that point. I always feel like there’s more to learn. I always want to be able to expand and try different things. I’m very comfortable songwriting; a lot more than I was on the debut album. Being in rooms I’m comfortable with allows me to express that. But also being in rooms you’re uncomfortable in can push you and unlock a code that you didn’t even know was possible for yourself. The songwriting aspect is not what has always come naturally to me. I’m always really interested in learning more and seeing other people’s process and seeing how they work so I can incorporate it into my working life.
I honestly prefer the sessions where it feels like a conversation. I don’t ever go into the studio like, “We need to make a pop song and it needs to be A and B structurally.” I never write like that, because that’s not fun for me at all — because then that starts to feel super calculated. I think it genuinely should be from feeling. It doesn’t always have to be my feelings. I remember writing a song one time with someone and it was exactly what she was going through in a relationship and I loved the song. It had nothing to do with me, so I think it just depends.
Take me back to bucket-list week when you were in the studio with J. Cole and Pharrell.
That week was one of the best weeks of my life. It was just so surreal but real at the same time. This was at the end of my [album] process and a lot of songs had already been picked out and we had been like, “This is what we’re missing.” I don’t like to go in and be like, “Let’s make this.” Getting in with Pharrell was really fun because it’s super different. Pharrell and The Neptunes is like, “What?!”
He was lovely, and we worked in Miami and he played me some stuff and he was like, “You know, we could make some stuff from scratch, [but] I just had this in mind for you.” He was like, “I’ve only given this to a few people, but I feel like you could thrive on this.” I was like, “Okay, no pressure.”
He played it for me and it’s super different than anything I’ve ever done. I really loved it. For me, I love to be comfortable — but I also like to be a little bit uncomfortable, because it pushes you. I also can’t box myself in. It’s easy to do when you’re comfortable, because that’s what you know how to do. So that was amazing and I definitely hope in the future that we can get back in and make some more stuff, because he’s super fun to work with, and super down-to-earth. It always trips me out when people are exactly what you think they are. A lot of the time people aren’t.
So then I go to J. Cole, who everyone knows is my favorite rapper. I was telling him my embarrassing stories of me and when he was on the What Dreams May Come Tour. It was [around the time of] Born Sinner and I was still in London. I cut college class that day and I stood outside. I was 19th in line. I know, because they give you this wristband — so you can leave but you still get your spot. It was freezing cold, but I didn’t care, and I was super front row. I was telling him all my stories. But also as a person, Cole is very inspirational. It’s amazing to be around somebody who is what they portray [to be].
To be fair to Cole, the session wasn’t even mostly making music. It was speaking and having conversations about different experiences. Obviously, we did make music too but I said to him, ‘If nothing ever comes of this, I really appreciate that you’ve been so open and honest with me. The conversations were super inspiring.’ Let alone us be able to get in the booth and do whatever.
But that whole week was kind of like — when I looked back on it, I thought this was everything I ever dreamed of. Working with people that inspire me — and it’s weird when I think [about how] people I’m super fans of, are fans of me as well. It’s still a weird feeling for me and I think it always will be. I’m just super appreciative that I’m even able to be in these rooms and experience everyone else’s process, as well as putting my process in there too. That was an amazing week for me.
— The Neptunes (@TheNeptunes) November 15, 2021
Last year, you performed at the O2 Arena with Wizkid. Taking it back to your collaboration with him on Made In Lagos, did you foresee the explosion that Wiz was going to have with this album?
I did, because I’ve been a Wizkid fan for a very long time. I know in Africa he’s already that guy, but I knew his time was coming. I think every single song on that album is sensational. It’s just very hard to pick a favorite and I think just being able to crossover is exactly what he needed, but I thought he was always going to do it. It was just a matter of timing.
When they asked me, it was a no-brainer for me. Being at the O2, it was nuts in there — and it really was crazy. I was at home, and just so happened that I was at home. I wasn’t even just at home for the show. I was at home for other reasons and it just so happened, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll be there.” It was amazing and just to see everyone’s reaction.
I went to his L.A. show too. Afrobeats and that sound in England is very big, and not as big over here [in the United States]. Just to see his L.A. show was amazing to me, because [The Wiltern Theatre] is a lot smaller than O2, but the reception was the exact same. Just to be part of that, I was so thankful to him. He’s so lovely and has always been like, “Thank you!” He never lets anything go unnoticed.
You have a double-platinum album. “Boo’d Up” is 7x-platinum and “Trip” is 5x-platinum and you have a Grammy for a project that came out four years ago. Do you feel any ounce of pressure of trying to reach those accolades or surpass them on your sophomore album?
I definitely feel pressure. I don’t necessarily feel pressure to match or surpass — because having a song that’s 7x-platinum is not just an everyday thing. These are things that don’t happen everyday for everybody. So to put that pressure on myself and say, “One song on this album needs to be 7x-platinum or more,” I think I’d be doing myself a disservice to how hard I worked on this album. “Boo’d Up” is also about to be five years old. Not to take anything away from it, but I think the timing of that record and what it did is… I don’t want to say an anomaly, because I know I can do it again for sure. But I wouldn’t put that pressure on myself and think if I don’t match or surpass then I’m failing, because I don’t believe that at all.
The process I’ve been through recording this album, and even with “Don’t F–k Me Up” — I’ve had so many difficult parts, I’ve had so many amazing parts and parts where I was or wasn’t sure and I didn’t have that in my debut’s process, because I didn’t know. I was just super naive. So just being able to compartmentalize what those things were for me and as an artist, whatever the album and singles do, they do.
Of course, it would be amazing to match and surpass because I think that’s everyone’s goal, but I wouldn’t say I feel pressure in that sense. I feel pressure when I put out anything, because you want the reward for your hard work as a human being. But if you don’t appreciate the process that comes before that reward, then you’re kind of missing the whole point.
you guys spoil me 😘 forever grateful ❤️ pic.twitter.com/IbH5yX2WUN
— Ella Mai (@ellamai) January 21, 2022
Your EP CHANGE turned five last year. What’s the biggest change you’ve made in your life or your career that you’re most proud of?
That’s a great question. There’s been so much change in my life, but I’m blessed. A lot of the change has been very positive. The biggest change in my life… I don’t even know how to answer that question. Other than being able to provide for my family, which is really important to me, I have the same friends from when before I was famous. Being able to still have those same meaningful friendships and relationships with people that know me as Ella — and Ella Mai of course too — but those things are really important to me, because I never want people to feel that I’m changing in a way that completely separates me from the people that I love. I’ve always had the biggest support from my family. In that aspect, just being able to provide for the people that I love and then them being there for me, but me also being there for them.
As far as the change in my career, what I’m most proud of change-wise is now, as opposed to my debut album, I’m a lot more confident and sure of what I want to say, and the message I want to put across to my listeners. I think when you listen to a song from an artist, you kind of feel like you dive into their world a little bit, and I think it’s important that you stay true to yourself. I know a lot of these things sound cliché, but it’s the truth. I’ve been very vulnerable, open, and honest on this project more than my debut era. A lot of people don’t know that much about me, because I make my music and I go away and you don’t see me for a little bit. I think this album and especially this single helps you dive into my world just a little bit more. I’m proud of myself for that because it’s not an easy thing to do to put your emotions on the line, but I think that’s what makes the best music.