Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
Those of you who’ve kept up with this column and my other writing on the site know I’ve been in Ella Mai mode since the May 6 release of Heart On My Sleeve. Certain tracks on the album are punctuated by sage advice from Mary J. Blige, who coincidentally dropped the deluxe edition of her own 2022 LP, Good Morning Gorgeous, the same day as Mai’s sophomore effort. Something about this feels serendipitous, as multiple songs on the original version of Good Morning Gorgeous mirror the gems Blige drops on Mai throughout Heart On My Sleeve. The greatest example of this is “Love Without The Heartbreak.”
Like most people around her age, Ella Mai grew up on Mary J. Blige’s soulful recollections of love’s highs and lows. Years later, the British singer would lean on the sincerity in Blige’s music as somewhat of a North Star for her own writing. “This album, I feel like I tapped into a lot of my inner Mary J. Blige,” Mai told former VIBE Editor-in-Chief Danyel Smith on The Ringer’s Black Girl Songbook. “A lot of the songs that I was making, I just felt like how I felt when I used to listen to Mary’s music growing up. She’s a really big influence of mine. And I’ve had interactions with her before, and she’s always been so lovely to me.”
Mai continued, “I sat down and I was speaking to Mustard about it, and I was like, ‘I don’t really want to talk on this album, but I want it to almost be like someone’s giving me advice.’ And if there’s anyone that I would take relationship advice from, as someone who I look at that has always been super, super honest about what she’s going through, the only person I would want on here is Mary J. Blige.”
The advice Blige bestows upon the 27-year-old appears at the end of two tracks on Heart On My Sleeve. The first of which is “Not Another Love Song.” The simmering ballad finds Mai attempting to differentiate love from something more deceptive, to which Blige responds, “This is never gonna be easy, Ella. But in these situations, you gotta guard your heart, guard your mind, guard your spirit. People take, take, take, and that’s just the way of the world […] but your heart is on your sleeve. You wear it out there, and people see it more than you think they do. And they play on that. Don’t end up being a victim all your life. I was for a long time.”
While those years of victimhood informed scorned yet resilient classics like “No More Drama” and “Not Gon Cry,” Blige’s present-day perseverance is perhaps best understood through songs like “Love Without The Heartbreak.”
Like in “No More Drama,” Blige is definitive in “Love Without The Heartbreak” about the disrespect she’s no longer willing to tolerate. And similar to “Not Gon Cry,” the Good Morning Gorgeous track is sung with a weariness that’d leave one to believe tears have already fallen. But the difference between “Love Without The Heartbreak” and some of Blige’s earlier work is this song seems to have been written with the cumulative wisdom of someone who’s suffered enough toxic love to know what a healthy one should feel like. The end result is a song that sounds sure of the existence of what she’s been searching for since 1992’s “Real Love.”
If I can pick the best parts of love, I would start it like this
I would start at the time we took our first trip
I would start at the time we had our first kiss
If I can pick the best parts of love, I can do without this
I would take out all the bullsh*t
I would take out the part about your ex-bi**h
I don’t know how long I can wait
Oh, I don’t know how much I can take
Oh, when will love give me a break?
Oh, I feel like I’m goin’ insane
As Blige opens verse one singing about her favorite parts of love, her lyrics read as a letter addressed to the feeling itself rather than a particular partner. Memories of a relationship’s first trip and earliest kiss bring to mind the infatuation phase the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s most loyal subject, Ella Mai, often sings about.
Never one to shy away from lamenting her sorrows, Blige pivots midway through the verse and lists the parts of so-called love she could do without. Plainly written with the pen of a grown a** woman, she dismisses the “bullsh*t” that includes but isn’t limited to complications caused by her partner’s past lover.
The pre-chorus that follows finds Blige in a space that might feel more familiar to fans than that of the song’s opening. Sounding beat down and fed up, she wonders how much longer she can wait and how much more she can take before the love she’s imagined becomes a reality. As these lyrics are sung with the passion of a prayer, this is the part of the song that’d seem to speak to the community a former VIBE staffer once called “Sister Mary and the Congregation.”
If I can pick the best parts of love, I would do it like this
I would start at the part when wе made love
All the flowеrs and cards just to make up
If I can pick the best parts of love, I’d do without this
I would take out the part when you changed up
I would take out the part when you gave up
Don’t know how long I can wait (Don’t know, I don’t know)
Ooh, I don’t know how much I can take
Oh, when will love give me a break?
I feel like I’m goin’ insane
Verse two is structured in a similar way as verse one but with a slight difference. As Blige includes “flowers and cards just to make up” on her list of things she loves about love, she clarifies that while healthy relationships may come without heartache, they don’t come without disagreements. This is perhaps my favorite line of the record, as it reminds me of “A Mess,” one of my favorite songs of Heart On My Sleeve.
Just before the start of “A Mess,” a sultry duet Ella Mai sings alongside Lucky Daye, there’s an interlude in which both artists discuss the notion of “toxic love”—or, in other words, love with the heartbreak. “I don’t want none of that toxic sh*t, please,” Mai declares. The song that follows finds the two Grammy-winning vocalists maintaining how messy and imperfect a non-toxic love can still be. In this sense, they both tap into their “inner Mary J. Blige.”
The actual Mary J. Blige closes verse two of “Love Without The Heartbreak” with a repetition of the song’s pre-chorus. Now sung with even more verve than it was at the end of verse one, this part of the record once again evokes the spirit of a religious experience. And with that added emotion in her delivery, Blige sounds as if she knows the answer to her prayers is right around the corner. It’s this subtle yet palpable confidence that tees up the song’s primary chorus, followed by the climax in its bridge.
I’m so goddamn sick of the pain
Wastin’ all my time playin’ so many games
Ups and downs, feel like I’m caught in the rain
I want love without the heartbreak
Listen, I never claimed to be a genius
I lived long enough to see this
Thought it was love, but I was dreamin’
I wanna feel love without the heartbreak
Now that I’ve revisited “Love Without The Heartbreak” after hearing Mary J. Blige speak throughout Heart On My Sleeve, the lyrics that ring with the most resonance from the above bridge are “I never claimed to be a genius/ I lived long enough to see this.”
That lived experience is heard and felt in Blige’s voice as she reappears on Ella Mai’s album during the final moments of “Sink Or Swim.” The penultimate track on the project, “Sink or Swim” is one of Mai’s rare breakup songs, as she navigates a treacherous love that capsizes her ability to trust. As the song ends, Blige reiterates the advice she gives earlier in the album: “You’re beautiful, and you deserve better. That’s my only thing I can say to you, sis. Guard that heart.”
Learning of Mary J. Blige’s influence on Ella Mai through the latter’s interview with Danyel Smith surprised me for two reasons. In my own interview with the “Boo’d Up” performer, she expressed an aversion to singing the sort of sad songs Blige is best known for. Thus, true to her optimistic approach to songwriting, Mai feels less like a disciple of Sister Mary than lovelorn lyricists the likes of Jazmine Sullivan, Summer Walker, and even SZA.
But as Blige’s recurring warning sticks in my mind—“guard that heart”—I’m reminded of the songs she’s sung throughout her career preaching perseverance and self-preservation. It’s possible Mai’s music sounds as hopeful as it does because she’s navigated life armed with lessons from a heroine who learned the hard way.