The distinct pleasure of Ella Mai’s 2018 breakout “Boo’d Up” lay in its breezy simplicity. The UK singer’s smash hit, which peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100, aspired toward the effortless sound of ’90s R&B, but Mai’s honeyed delivery brought something fresh and endlessly replayable to the formula. The ubiquitous track all but guaranteed a double-platinum certification for Mai’s self-titled debut, a record that drifted from breathy ballads to ascendant vocal runs, occasionally to boring ends. Yet her rich, textured voice and commitment to the throwback sound placed her high among a new generation of artists mining R&B’s history and giving it a modern spin.
On her second album, Heart on My Sleeve, Mai asserts herself as a resilient force, especially when she sings about falling head over heels in love. Executive produced by frequent collaborator Mustard, the record fleshes out her lovestruck sound with more tactile elements—acoustic guitars and strings are foregrounded more often than beats. Mai also thankfully forgoes the mood-killing spoken-word outros, replacing them with the occasional guest appearances: Mary J. Blige offers backing vocals and words of encouragement in her luxuriant New York accent on the vulnerable “Sink or Swim,” while gospel legend Kirk Franklin and his choir show up for a full-blown sermon on “Fallen Angel.” By leaning into lush, percussive instrumentation and rounding up collaborators who complement her sound, Mai has crafted a solid follow-up that centers her strengths as a singer and songwriter.
The best songs are closely in tune with Mai’s emotions. On the highlight “How,” she goes toe-to-toe with Compton rapper Roddy Ricch over a lilting vocal sample, adopting a springy flow as she picks herself up after a betrayal: “How could you switch it up on me in my darkest hour?” she demands. “Fallen Angel” takes a two-part approach, beginning with funky handclaps and hi-hats. “Maybe this is compensation for unmet expectations,” she considers in her fluttering mezzo-soprano before the song crests in its Kirk-assisted gospel outro. With her ear for melody and rich backing harmonies, Mai balances the tonal shifts with ease.
Mai falters when she slips into staid songs that come across as filler. On the straightforward, 808-laced ballad “DFMU,” the production flattens her precise vocal delivery; later, “Feels Like” is hampered by a half-committed lyrical conceit (as a hook, “feels like ooh” can only go so far). The stumbles keep Heart on My Sleeve from being truly exceptional, but Mai’s sumptuous voice and attention to detail make it a beguiling delight.