Contemporary R&B has produced some of the most groundbreaking and lucrative megastars in American pop, but much in the way of country music and Ford pickup trucks, it’s a trend that has struggled to find similar success across the pond. ‘Boo’d Up’ singer Ella Mai pointed out in a recent Guardian interview “the music industry in England doesn’t really know what to do with R&B”, and as damning assessments of virulent systemic racism go, her words stick.
Take a glance at the previous ten years and a distressing pattern emerges. British women of colour either emigrate to America, as Sade did, or like the underappreciated Beverly Knight, are reduced to performing endless revivals on the West End. Laura Mvula, a Mercury Prize-nominated artist, was released from her contract on Sony Records, while blue-eyed soul artists such as Jess Glynne, George Ezra and Adele achieved blockbuster success by adopting the vocal mannerisms of the backing singers in an average East London church. Something is urgently amiss.
British women of colour either emigrate to welcoming arms in America … or are reduced to performing endless revivals on the West End.
And so pinning down Mahalia’s uniquely protean sound is tricky, and you wonder if it’s by design; a gambit to avoid being herded into an executive’s narrow quality box. Her self-styled ‘psycho-acoustic soul’ offers a tasteful blend of buttery 90’s Neo-soul and moonlit indie; imagine Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 spliced with Tom Misch’s shuttling melodies and you’re in the vicinity. It’s a remarkably sumptuous sound, especially considering Mahalia is barely out of her twenties. Picking up an acoustic guitar aged eight led to an Ed Sheeran co-sign and a contract with Asylum Records. A EP and an excellent debut, Diary of Me, soon followed. Tonight, there’s a sense that the mostly young audience have leaned on these records like sonic crutches, and their love for their hero radiates across the little room.
Supported by a steady drummer and a rhythm guitarist, Mahalia delivered a mesmerising performance that stood halfway between an intimate open mic and a warm hug. Most of tonight’s set is lifted from her new Seasons EP, a lush quintet of neo-soul ballads that’s as compositionally ambitious as anything the Leicester songwriter has ever released. ‘One Night Only’ lets her vocal glide along a gooey synth line, suggesting a new interest in Drake-brand synthy solipsism, although there’s still hints of the balladry from Diary of Me. ‘Good Reason’, for instance, is almost skeletal, held together entirely by a delicate piano figure that feels as brittle as broken glass.
Many young musicians struggle to bridge the gap between their growing sonic ambitions and their label’s reluctance to finance a touring band any bigger than two pieces. As such, all the fluttering string arrangements on ‘One Night Only’ are played by a Mac balanced on the edge of a keyboard. Other artists might have struggled to make a backing track work live, but Mahalia’s authenticity immediately wins the crowd over.
You might call it a lightness of touch- she jokingly introduces one song by telling us her work is about ‘love, relationships, all that bollocks’, but’s there is also an emotional heft to her storytelling. Long-distance relationship ballad ‘Surprise Me’ is as gently moving as a peak Jill Scott deep cut, while anti-bullying anthem ‘Silly Girl’ is a showcase for her vocal range, seamlessly skipping from velvety melisma to to socially-minded couplets like “When’s it gonna stop this?/Anonymous lies behind screens and shattering dreams of young teens”.
The set’s key highlight is ‘Back-Up Plan’, a musical pen-portrait about a single parent’s pursuit of showbiz stardom performed in heart-stopping acapella. It’s a wistful reflection on the graft involved in chasing dreams and the steep toll it takes on both your spirit and on your time. But there’s also some scalp-prickling pop. ‘I Wish I Missed my Ex’ is brilliant, a perfectly sculpted bit of radio alchemy propelled by empowering lyrics and flaring electro horns that sound as bright and clean as a sunburst.
However, despite all that incredible songcraft, you could be forgiven for ranking Mahalia as the show’s second most compelling performer. Towards the end of the set, she picks up the mic, poised to sing internet hit ‘Sober’, except the crowd rush several bars ahead of her. For several indelible minutes, Mahalia watched, grinning, as the entire venue belted back every verse, word perfect and in exact time to the instrumental. It’s an electric, roof-lifting moment, proof not only of the loving fanbase she commands, but of R&B’s future in the UK.
What’s a songwriting wunderkind to do if the A&R men running the BRITs fail to recognise her? It’s hard not to feel fed up with an industry so intent on neglecting its most startling talents. But you know Mahalia will win out in the end, no matter her destination. She’s the real thing; a star so attuned to the inner lives of her audience that they internalize every word like holy writ. She matters, and we are so lucky to have her.