In 2014, three young women from the south of England made Cheryl Tweedy’s face light up like she’d just received a fat annual Girls Aloud royalties cheque. In their first X Factor audition, girl group Arize rippled through three-part harmonies while covering Little Mix. In the process, they seemed seemed to win over every one of the judges, too (they were knocked out of the competition at the next stage, but still). Watching the clip on YouTube now, you don’t learn any of the singers’ names. But one of them, in an oversized acid-wash denim shirt and dark lipstick, is now responsible for one of the biggest songs of the summer. In a few years, Ella Mai – now 23 – graduated from getting booted off of The X Factor in its early stages to creating “Boo’d Up,” a late-blooming infatuation anthem. The strangest part of all? Her huge hit isn’t yet a huge hit in the country she’s from.
If you spend a fair amount of time scrolling through social media, chances are you’ve already heard “Boo’d Up” – even if you do live in the UK. The single, which came out February 2017 but picked up a second life this year, has got toddlers dancing. It’s had otherwise ‘hard’ men singing along, guys sing-complaining about bad takeaway food and enough remixes in the #BoodUpChallenge to spawn a meme format making fun of those remixes. Some beauties have arisen from the flood of celebrity remixes “Boo’d Up” has whipped up. T-Pain’s stands out most so far, opening with the line “how many songs can you make about a booty? About a thousand!” before digging into the sort of explicit sex talk that Ella’s original was careful to sidestep. “T-Pain murdered it,” Ella said in conversation with Essence this week, picking it as a clear favourite while also shouting out Fabolous and Plies’s remixes.
A brief listen of Ella’s original showcases why it has picked up this late, building momentum. It’s a shimmery, warm slab of 90s-inspired R&B, with washes of synths that expand into a ta-ta-ta-tat syncopated hi-hat sample driving the beat (most effectively in the chorus). Ella’s “ba-dum, boo'd up / Biddy-da-dum, boo'd up” vocals during the chorus imitate the pump and thud of a beating heart, while simultaneously sounding like freeform scatting. And so she manages to marry new jack swing, R&B and the slightest hint of jazz in a song with full pop impact. Every way you turn this song around, it glints like a gem. But, when you start to analyse how it’s been received on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, one thing becomes clear: the UK is sleeping on Ella Mai. More specifically, a mass audience over here is missing out on a potential song of the summer that isn’t just us tearfully singing “Three Lions” now that England’s been knocked out of the World Cup.
To understand why, we have to examine what it takes to convince the general British public that a song has sauce. Broadly speaking, indie has had it, but besides an act like Arctic Monkeys, that moment has passed. If Drake were a genre, he’d have it, too. Whether on last year’s “One Dance,” piggybacking on Rihanna’s “Work” in 2016 or any of his several contenders this year – “Nice for What” dragging from spring into summer, “God’s Plan” or “In My Feelings” – he rarely drops out of the UK charts and party playlists. The jangle and waist-whine of afrobeats, afro bashment and afropop can also do well here. Mabel capitalised on the ascendance of the west African diaspora blending with Caribbean sonic elements on her Kojo Funds-featuring single “Finders Keepers” last year and everyone from Afro B to Belly Squad, J Hus and Kojo in his solo work have been developing that sound for a while.
But as a general rule, straight up R&B is a harder sell here. Components of the genre have permeated pop – see the rise of Jorja Smith, Mabel, Ray BLK, Mahalia. But when R&B is served raw on a plate, the average listener still seems to recoil. “Boo’d Up,” with its high-key 90s R&B production flourishes, probably sounds familiar and faintly nostalgic to listeners in Chicago, Atlanta, LA and New York, where the majority of Ella’s Spotify streams are coming from. Speaking to the Fader, Ella said that out of all the songs on her 2017 EP, READY, “Boo’d Up” turned into a sleeper hit “because it has quite a nostalgic feel to it, and it’s about love as well. It’s a clean song, there’s no cursing, it’s super innocent, and everyone’s been through that puppy-love sort of thing.”
Rather than dogwhistle, I’ll be direct – and please do forgive the blunt and somewhat imprecise stereotyping: black people more likely grew up with R&B and soul played in the house. I’ll include kids who grew up in some of the UK’s bigger cities here too, since London is among the top five cities for Ella’s streams. And so, revamped in 2018, the genre may well resonate with them on both a musical and memory-led personal level. But for Brits who grew up with parents playing the likes of Britpop or 80s synthpop or Abba or Fleetwood Mac, R&B may have been considered a niche genre with less cultural capital. Ella said as much, speaking to the BBC earlier this year: "I think R&B is way bigger in America. It's not really that mainstream in the UK."
And the numbers don’t lie. At the time of writing, “Boo’d Up” isn’t on the UK R&B singles chart top 40. That top five is entirely made up of Drake songs. “Boo’d Up” spent one week in the UK singles chart, at number 77. Meanwhile, it peaked at number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the main singles chart), number 1 on the radio-based Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart and at number 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart. Joe Budden recently name-checked it as his pick for song of the summer, on his podcast. Do with that what you will. But either way, there’s a clear separation at play, where both traditional and digital plays are boosting “Boo’d Up” in the US while streaming is left to do more of the heavy lifting in the UK (and thus makes less of an impact, for now). That all may change soon. Ella’s been added to BBC Radio 1Xtra’s A list (meaning she’s guaranteed a certain number of plays per week, while on that list), and 1Xtra have been showing her love for a while. According to her press team she’s picked up support from Capital Xtra, Beats 1, Rinse FM, Fresh Beats, south London station Reprezent Radio and earned multiple spot plays at Radio 1.
As a child, Ella moved from London to New York and lived there from 12 to 17. It probably doesn’t feel like too much of a leap for her to be doing so well in the country she’s also called home. And she seems to know that R&B may soon be on the up, even among a wider British audience. "There's a lot of young females doing R&B in England who are extremely talented and deserve more light on their stories,” she said, in that same BBC interview. "[R&B] is on the up here and I think we'll get there eventually. I'm proud to be from England and doing so well in America so I can fly the flag." She’s come a long way since standing in front of Simon Cowell, Cheryl, Mel B and Louis Walsh all those years ago. But if you give her a chance, she might take your breath away now, as she did for them then. Don’t sleep on her quite yet.
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