Have you ever had a friend whose tumultuous relationship repeatedly left them shattered? Only to be back in the culprit’s arms every time? This is the emotional dilemma many people face as they grow and learn how to better navigate their feelings through messy experiences. R&B artist Ella Mai lays it all out on the table in her sophomore album, Heart On My Sleeve. Listeners are given insight into the London native’s mind with fifteen solid tracks, all about chaotic attachments, trust issues, and making hard decisions.
Heart On My Sleeve oscillates between adoration and sorrow. One moment she’s optimistic and excited for the future of the relationship, then the next she’s dangerously close to waving the white flag. The ebb and flow creates a cohesive and interesting story to follow.
Mai’s vocals are simply angelic. Her lower register in particular deserves special appreciation. Rich in nature, she showcases it well in the soulful ballad, “Hide” (“I found a place to hide / You are my safety line”). Her falsetto in “DFMU” is just as cathartic. The track has a beautiful piano with a wispy synth, all to the tune of fairytales coming true. She asserts in a delicate tone, “Cause if it’s love, I wanna drown / I need to hear it from your mouth.”
The “Boo’d Up” singer is no stranger to crafting feel-good bangers. “Power of a Woman” stands out as the first track where confidence and prowess are at the forefront. Not to mention the acoustic guitar and warped synth enhancing the flow! The preceding song and my personal favorite, “A Mess” featuring Lucky Daye, is even more catchy. Their harmonies and runs blend gracefully. It’s also one of the notable tracks that uses water as a metaphor for enduring rough patches. “Oh, when we get together it’s like rain and storms.”
This album is a pendulum of emotion that Mai encapsulates with ease. Surprise guest Mary J. Blige shares her perspective on “Sink or Swim” and the gold certified single, “Not Another Love Song.” She emphasizes the importance of remaining authentic and honoring your self-worth, even when others aren’t as genuine.
In “Fallen Angel,” passion is sprinkled with a tinge of skepticism. She croons over a heartfelt choir, “You’re a long, long way from Heaven.” Yet, love is an all-encompassing risk in “Leave You Alone” as she second guesses their intentions: “I be hoping that it’s more than just my body that you wanted.”
And silence speaks volumes in “Didn’t Say” featuring Latto. The Atlanta rapper’s verse adds detail (“I wish I could cut these soul ties, no lie”) and Mai’s voice is luscious behind the swinging piano chords.
Ending with a somewhat bittersweet sendoff is the closing track “Fading Out.” With an alluring cadence, operatic backing vocals, and chromatic piano keys, she finally reaches her breaking point. It’s like a three minute sigh of relief after applying so much energy into a dying love affair: “I say sorry ’cause the words I say may kill your dreams.“
To have your heart on your sleeve is to be vulnerable and honest, a practice we could all benefit from. Just in time for the summer season, Ella Mai’s Heart On My Sleeve delivers excellent R&B anthems for those recovering from heartbreak and the hopeless romantics alike.