An R&B singer and songwriter with a casually commanding voice, Ella Mai wasn't exactly an unknown artist before DJ Mustard signed her to his 10 Summers label, but the U.K. native hit the mainstream in 2018 with breakthrough single "Boo'd Up," a sparkling slow jam that increased in popularity throughout the year. The single led to her Top Five self-titled debut album, which arrived that October and was followed shortly thereafter by a Grammy win for Best R&B Song.
Raised in southwest London, Ella Mai Howell moved to New York at the age of 12, then returned to England after she graduated from high school. In 2014, while attending the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in London, she competed on The X Factor as part of a trio named Arize, but the group didn't advance beyond the initial audition and subsequently broke up. The following year, Ella Mai uploaded a solo EP of originals to SoundCloud and clips of covers to Instagram. The latter caught the attention of producer DJ Mustard, who in January 2016 announced that Mai had signed to his Interscope-distributed 10 Summers label.
Mai made her proper debut the following month with Time, a poised EP of sleek, contemporary R&B. Featuring the Ty Dolla $ign collaboration "She Don't," the six-track release introduced an artist who could sing of fierce loyalty and ruthless spite in an incisive manner. Mai quickly followed up with two more Mustard-assisted EPs: Change, a November 2016 release, and Ready, issued four months later. Ready highlight "Boo'd Up," a love ballad reminiscent of R&B's pre-new jack swing era, cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2018 and three months later peaked at number five — an unusually long period of ascent. "Trip" arrived as "Boo'd Up" began its slide off the chart and reached number 11 in October, the month Ella Mai released her self-titled debut album. Containing her two biggest hits to that point, Ella Mai debuted at number five on the Billboard 200. "Boo'd Up" was nominated for Grammy Awards in the categories of Song of the Year (one of "the Big Four") and Best R&B Song; at the early 2019 ceremony, she took home the prize for the latter. She received a Grammy nomination later that year for Best R&B Album for Ella Mai. ~ Andy Kellman