British R&B singer Ella Mai brought her euphonious, high-soprano vocals and in-sync dance choreography to D.C. with a stop at Echostage on her “Heart On My Sleeve” Tour Saturday.
After a four-year hiatus from touring, Mai showcased the extended version of her 2022 sophomore album “Heart On My Sleeve,” which released in February with three bonus tracks. She brought her unmatched vocal wonders onto the stage, moving on from the nostalgia of her self-titled 2018 debut album into a composed lyrical genius in charge of her own narrative.
Inside the venue, a large red pixelated heart that read EMaiX – short for Ella Mai Deluxe – filled the stage’s backdrop as the lights dimmed to a deep blue, signaling showtime. The crowd erupted as the R&B star entered the stage to the interlude of the beloved single “Trying,” the first track of the album. In a stunning denim, two-piece outfit with tied straps on each arm and long curls sweeping to her side, the artist smiled at the crowd as she started singing the fast, chopped verses of the song’s intro followed by a “How are we doin’ tonight, D.C.?”
Dreamy glows of orange lights warmed the stage for the next song, matching the lyrics of my favorite track “Not Another Love Song,” a single that emanates crackling summer romance as she hovered on the smooth “Ohs” in the chorus. In her honeyed tones, Mai sang “I just wanna know what’s up / Do you feel it? ‘Cause I think I’m in” with the help of her two backup singers. They finished the verse with a synchronized, harmonious “love,” grabbing their microphones with both hands for a moment of sincerity in the otherwise upbeat choreography. Mai’s performance confronted the former relationships she cast with apprehension in her older music, now singing with fixed emotions about the former version of herself – someone living in her dreams yet waiting for her goals to happen on her own terms.
During the catchy single “How” featuring Roddy Ricch, Mai sang about her independence on the heels of an overly attached relationship. She sang to the crowd about her commitment to “drive” to the next chapter on her own time instead of letting someone take over her life with lyrics like “Back to business, caught my fuel again / You out so I can let me back in.” Her lulling voice didn’t need to finish the lines in the microphone for it to carry across the room – she soothed the audience with her refreshing conviction in her movements and long soprano tones that floated in the air.
The stage gleamed in a crimson hue as she jumped into the song that everyone was waiting for, Grammy-award-winning “Boo’d Up.” With an ode to attendees, she asked who in the crowd came to the concert with their “boos” and told them to gear up for the single made for them. Mai motioned for everyone to move their hands back and forth as she paced across the stage with the music, the vocals of her and her backup singers reverberating within the building.
In a switch-up to the track “Didn’t Say” that delighted fans due to her quick execution and swift arm movements, Mai started rapping the lines “Said it’s all in the things that you didn’t say, didn’t say / Too busy hidin’ anyway” in rapper Latto’s verse. She poured absolute confidence into the song’s intimate words as she walked around the stage with the microphone while gazing at the crowd as she motioned for them to sing along with the words.
Mai acknowledges support from her fans every chance she gets – from her award speeches to her interviews to endless social media dialogue. That gratitude was evident across the venue when she pointed out at fans, held out her mic when they were singing the loudest and praised her background vocalists’ clean-cut movements. Fans sang their hearts out, even assisting in a quick “Happy Birthday” serenade when Mai announced it was her hairstylist’s special day, ushering her out from behind the stage.
I left the concert astonished by the paradoxical vulnerability and confidence she exuded in each song and line she performed. The ethereal range from her deep, rich tones to her higher pitches kept the audience transfixed and ready to mimic her sound.
Mai’s performance embodied a self-made artist who has taken power into her own hands. From the moment her producer and close friend DJ Mustard discovered her on Instagram, she has transformed 21st-century R&B. In an empowering moment, Mai even addressed the ladies in the crowd during the concert, asking why women let “sh*t” happen when they know they shouldn’t.
Mai’s gratitude and excited air as she directed the audience to sing along made the concert all the more electrifying. She wooed the D.C. crowd with her impeccable, potent lyricism and showed fans how she wore her heart on her sleeve.
This article appeared in the April 13, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.