"I used to live in New York so this low-key feels like home," British R&B phenom Ella Mai told the sold-out crowd at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg on Monday night partway through her headlining set. Later, she takes an NYC roll call, asking who has come from each of the five boroughs, before asking if she's left anything out. One audience member shouts out an inaudible location. "You came all the way from Westchester?" she responds incredulously.
New York seems as good a place as any for Ella Mai to enjoy a victory lap on her "Boo'd Up": The Tour trek. Since she's been here last, "Boo'd Up" has crashed the top five of the Billboard Hot 100, been certified double-platinum, and been nominated for song of the summer at the MTV Video Music Awards -- with Mai specifically shouting out the last two achievements toward show's end, even telling fans to hit up the MTV Instagram account to vote. The crowd reflects her burgeoning star status: the 550-capacity venue is clearly maxed out, and it's clear even from the pre-show anticipation (as those in attendance sing along to a selection of contemporary R&B jams from the likes of SZA and Daniel Caesar) that the singer-songwriter could've filled a larger venue fairly easily.
As her set gets underway, it's pretty clear that those in attendance aren't just biding their time until she gets to her sole Hot 100 hit. Early EP tracks like "Found" and "Don't Want You" get rapturous responses from the first notes her backing band plays, and the normally Ty Dolla $ign-featuring "She Don't" starts an audience-wide sing-along, even before Mai takes a crowd-pleasing dip into the chorus of Lauryn Hill's classic "Doo Wop (That Thing)" at song's end. The songs are uniformly strong, and Mai is a compelling presence delivering them -- she's a little unpolished and doesn't quite own the stage like a star yet, but her voice has an understated power to it, her full smile is blinding, and she excels at the little things that make artists relatable performers, like dropping a quick "true story" after a revealing lyric from 2017 single "Naked."
But of course, "Boo'd Up" is the climax, and after less than a year in our lives, it's amazing the emotional rush the song already provides right from the opening synth waves and 808 clicks. Mai already performs it with the assuredness of a signature song, as it's destined to be for her, and to her credit she still sounds properly in awe of it and what it's become. In fact, after one time through -- and an appropriately dramatic onstage pause to soak in the loudest audience cheers of the night -- she decides to run it back, with a twist: "I want you guys to share the stage with me." So five fans (one of whom, Nicholas, she calls her "best friend") come onstage to share two microphones on an awkward but ultimately endearing second time through "Boo'd Up," with the crowd even more into Mai's egalitarian encore than they were the first time around. "Literally, I'm speechless," the singer-songwriter comments of the fan response on multiple occasions.
However, even after the double "Boo'd Up," a final number still remains. "I have one last song to do," Mai teases. "Has anyone heard the last song that I put out l last Friday?" She then launches into new single "Trip," the official "Boo'd" follow-up, which led Spotify's New Music Friday playlist earlier this month and represents Ella's first chance at ridding herself of any potential one-hit wonder tags. The song is a winner, with a chorus nearly as sticky as "Boo'd," and gets a positive response -- though whether it can produce the same kind of viral magic as her breakthrough hit remains to be seen. Regardless, you can bet that by the next time Ella Mai plays New York, Music Hall of Williamsburg won't be big enough to hold her.