When a song by a newcomer blows up as big as Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” has, there’s always a chance it can put the artist on a one-way road to one-hit-wonder status.
The 24-year-old British R&B singer’s very sold-out concert Thursday at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, however, showed there’s a lot more to Mai than that one clever earworm of a tune — not quite enough yet to fully round out her 90-minute performance, but more than enough to expect even bigger things.
With its heartbeat-pattering groove and nervously lovelorn lyrics, “Boo’d Up” became the longest-standing No. 1 single by a female artist on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop airplay chart. And then it became the best R&B song at the Grammys, where she earned even more attention just being nominated in the general song of the year category against much bigger names.
Introducing “Boo’d Up” halfway through her performance Thursday, Mai beamed, “This song changed my life. … I went to the Grammys two weeks ago, and I won one.”
The 1,000 packed fans — mostly women, but a wide range age-wise — predictably went gaga at that point (not to bring up a bigger-name act also up for a best-song Grammy). However, there were numerous other tunes before and after the megahit where fans raised their cellphones and voices in unison.
“Bood’ Up” offers a good introductory taste of the infectious, repetitious flavor in many of Mai’s songs. Heavily inspired by rappers — and intermittently one herself — she has a keen knack for infusing rhythmic hip-hop infections into her hooky pop melodies. Other prime examples of this intoxicating blend on Thursday included her braggadociously sassy “Sauce” groover early in the set and the Lauryn Hill-flavored romp “Own It” later on.
Another highlight mid-show, “Whatchamacallit,” showed just how clever a wordsmith Mai can be; although it didn’t seem too clever to have repeat assault felon Chris Brown guest on the recorded version of the song (about a woman mistreated). For multiple reasons, Brown wasn’t at all missed in the live version.
Mai wore a billowy, fluorescent-yellow overcoat throughout the performance, which seemed to emphasize her already bright, cheery, swaying stage presence. In contrast to how the jacket looked, her three-piece band sounded thin and underwhelming, and her two backup vocalists seemed to be conspicuously backed up with pre-recorded vocals in some of the songs.
Just as she filled her debut eponymous album to a bloated 15 tracks and 58 minutes, Mai let Thursday’s show go on too long. The setlist addition of “Anymore,” from her 2017 EP “Ready,” was welcome, but the slow-grooving album tracks “Close” and “Run My Mouth” created a lull late in the show.
Things picked greatly for the last two songs, though, with the more soulful confessional “Naked” and then the finale “Trip,” the latter a playful kiss-off romp that showed off Mai’s charming blend of detached British aloofness with sensuality, as she sang, “Your love is big enough, got me trip-trippin’ on you.” It should be quite a trip for Mai from here on out.
Opening for Mai, actor/singer Kiana Ledé of MTV’s “Scream” series and Netflix’s “All About the Washingtons” came off well with a more classic ‘90s-style R&B sound and a rather dramatic voice. Her good-natured, Rihanna-flavored breakup song “Ex” especially earned a rave response.