“Now keep in my mind I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit,” Erykah Badu once said on the outro of “Next Lifetime (Interlude)” from her lone Live album. Although Ella Mai had just turned three when Badu first made this utterance, it is indicative of her thought process for Heart On My Sleeve, her new album that is out now.
In the spring of 2020, the pandemic affected artists of all genres when it paused the way they did interviews, performed live music, and, yes, even recorded music. Mai was among the eager bunch who had grown close to retiring to a studio workstation to produce a fresh new album.
However, some artists had identified plausible workarounds for distanced music-making, often through at-home recording or remote sessions via Zoom. That wasn’t a new way of creating that felt fulfilling to Mai, given that she was on album two.
In a recent interview, Mai told Apple Music’s Nadeska, “I’m not really a work at home studio girl or the Zoom sessions that everyone was doing. I just couldn’t. It worked for some people. I wish it did work for me but I just feel like I need to be in a room with energy and feeding off of people.”
Between all of that, Mai had grown a tight bond with writers such as Prince Charlez (Rihanna, Mary J. Blige) and Varren Wade (Givēon, BJ the Chicago Kid) both of which had previously worked on her past releases, including her Grammy-nominated 2018 self-titled debut album. In Mai’s eyes, coming clean about her life with either Charlez or Wade in the studio felt less like work and more like a therapy session.
With newly-onboarded songwriting contributors, Mai seemed to be guarded with them, particularly in what she divulged that came from a personal place. She had a good reason, though.
“Songwriting is very sacred,” she explained. “You can be feeling something and going into the studio and you might not want to tell anyone what’s going on but it’s on your heart. But I told myself, all of the music that I grew up listening to was really raw and their emotions were on the line and I feel like that gives you the best album really.”
Consequently, Heart On My Sleeve just happens to have deep, introspective songs that get at touchy love emotions even her endeared influences could resonate with.
“Not Another Love Song,” the album’s initial lead single, has already proved a hit. On the certified gold song, Mai, despite what her heart is telling her she feels, refuses to show her hand entirely to a new fling in fear of delaying the situation’s progression.
At the 3:35 mark of the album version, Mary J. Blige makes an uncredited guest appearance. The legendary singer, a childhood idol and fan of Mai, speaks from experience in hopes of encouraging Mai to protect her feelings when it comes to unrequited love. Blige reprises her role again in “Sink or Swim.”
The snappy, Roddy Rich-guested “How” is one of a few songs on Mai’s Heart On My Sleeve co-made by her frequent collaborator Mustard. This matched-well collaboration sequenced smoothly with an unedited, lo-fi soundbite of a reflective Mai.
Here, she questions her last man about failing to give notification on letting go of her hand at the most an inopportune time. Mai calls it no harm, no foul, picking up the pieces the best way she knows how.
Where the Lucky Daye duet “A Mess” has them trading “you the best” compliments back and forth, the definite follow-up “Feels Like” places Mai in a position to call the shots on how she wants to be pleasured.
Additionally, featured on Heart On My Sleeve are the era-attracting tracks “Leave Me Alone” and “DFMU.” The last of which is Mai’s latest song near the upper reaches of the R&B charts. Co-produced by Mustard and J. Holt, “DFMU” recently claimed Mai’s sixth top 10 single on Billboard’s Adult R&B Airplay chart.
Stream Ella Mai’s new album Heart On My Sleeve below.