Ella Mai’s “She Don’t” is everything you ever typed out to an ex before you thought better of it and hit delete. The 21-year-old singer’s bold debut single blazed a trail through the OVO Sound show when it premiered on Beats 1 a few weeks ago—not purely for its warm DJ Mustard beat, nor its Ty Dolla $ign feature, nor the news that this was the first teaser from a new 10 Summers signee. What really turned heads was its breezy new voice: deliciously cruel and unapologetically empowering, Ella Mai gender-flips some of rap’s most ubiquitous hooks (“IDFWU,” “99 Problems”) to inform her ex that his new girl is nothing compared to her.
The Time EP—Mai’s debut release, out today and streaming below—delivers on the promise of that first track, right from its first line: Mama said, never love a nigga more than he love me. As well as anti-romance anthem “She Don’t,” there’s “Don’t Want You,” where Mai pairs syrupy, mournful verses that muse on love lost with a fat-basslined chorus that gives 0 fucks. On the stand-out final track, “Thousand Times Over,” Mai captures how women are expected to love, care, and empathize, and then casts off all that societal pressure with a shrug, putting herself in the spotlight instead. She bemoans an ex whose jeans she ironed, and whose stupid ideas she patiently listened to—all she has to say to him now is: I hope the next girl you love ends up fucking you over.
Though she bounces over DJ Mustard productions like she’s been basking in L.A. sunshine all her life, Mai is originally from the U.K.—a fact that jumps out on her EP interludes, where she speaks in her distinctly London accent. She grew up in the south London borough of Mitcham, before moving to New York from the ages of 12 to 17 when her mom got a teaching job there. After completing high school in N.Y.C., Mai returned to the U.K. and appeared on British reality talent show The X Factor as part of a harmonizing girl group named Arize in 2014. Arize were kicked off the show in the second round of auditions and disbanded—but that’s when Howell began her own hustle, writing and recording the solo EP Troubled (with production from her New York-based friend DJ Kam1). By July 2015, she started uploading her 15-second covers of trending rap and R&B songs to Instagram. That’s when Mustard found her.
“She has an amazing voice, I was surprised no one scooped her up yet,” Mustard told The FADER over email. “Having an amazing voice wasn’t enough to make me sign her—I had to get in the studio to really gauge how well we could work together. She has a great head on her shoulders and has the drive to really become a superstar. As new as she is, she has the work ethic of a pro. We got a lot of big things in the works, I’m almost more excited for her upcoming year than mine!”
The FADER caught up with Ella Mai on the phone while she was in L.A. putting the final touches on the EP to find out more about her influences, outlook, and heritage. Bump the EP below while you read, and watch the “She Don’t” video here.
So tell me about the last few weeks. How have you found the response to “She Don’t” going out on OVO Sound?
ELLA MAI: It's been crazy. It’s like something that you always want to happen. The response I got was basically all positive. People have been reposting my stuff, people on Instagram have been hashtagging me in their posts and singing the song. There's dance groups doing choreography to it. You have to take a step back and really think, 'Wow, this is really happening, this is what I always wanted.' And it’s happening so quickly as well. Everything has literally blown up for me in half a year.
When did Mustard first reach out to you?
Mustard saw my Instagram probably like, August of 2015. He just reached out to me by DM on Instagram. He asked, ‘Where are you from,’ what's my situation, that kind of thing. He didn't realize I was from London ‘cause nobody really seems to know, because when I sing you don't hear [my accent]... He was like, 'Oh damn, I would never have known.’ It kind of took off from there really.
How long were you doing the Instagram videos for?
Not long at all. I mean, I've had my Instagram for ages...but it's like I had an epiphany one day. I decided, ‘Okay, I go to school for music, my friends know I can sing, but what am I really doing to put myself out there?' At the time "679" by Fetty Wap was a really popular song. So I was like, let me put my own little spin on it. I wouldn't have guessed all of this would have come from that video and then all the videos following up after that.
Your new EP is full of breakup songs, but not sad ones, self-confident ones. Like, ‘Whatever, I didn’t need you anyway.’
I'm big on self-confidence. Everyone goes through that heart-breaking process, ‘cause we're human and we have emotions. But I think the bounce-back is most important.
What place were you in emotionally when you were writing this EP?
I was definitely stable when I wrote this EP, but I put myself in the shoes of 17/18-year-old me, who wasn't so stable. You know, usual teenage girl stuff! Now, I look at this body of work and realise how much I’ve grown and found myself, and that’s a big deal. It was so important to me to portray the fact that you can invest a lot of time into someone or something, but time will heal all pain.
Which artists were particularly influential on you growing up?
My number one would undoubtedly be Lauryn Hill. My mum used to play The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill non-stop, it was almost like a part of my everyday life. She is so relatable and so raw, speaks to me on so many levels, not to mention the fact that her music is timeless. Chris Brown would definitely have to be a close number two. I couldn't tell you what it is about his music that connects with me, but it's there, and it's been there since I was 10 or 11.
I love how you go from singing this really U.S.-sounding R&B to doing skits in your British accent. Was that important to you, to get your London identity in there?
Yeah, 100%. Because like I said, a lot of people don't know that I'm from [the U.K.]. Everyone assumes that I'm American when [they] hear me sing. It’s where I'm from, so of course I want to represent and make people know.
Is there anything that we might be surprised to know about you?
I used to play football [soccer]. I'm a big football girl. But then again, I'm not really that girly so it might not be a surprise.
What’s the best advice anyone has given you?
Stay grounded. Be yourself. Don't let the industry change you. Everyone always says 'Be true to yourself, however you're feeling, whatever you believe in. Don't let whatever your surroundings are change that.'
What's next for you in 2016?
We don't know but I'm hoping the best. We're just running with the tide right now and seeing wherever it takes us.