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.
Mahalia is one of the sharpest R&B lyricists I’ve heard in some time. The British singer’s knack for crafting songs with clean concepts and incisive observations is foregrounded throughout Letter To Ur Ex, her recently released EP. The five-song collection is bookended by two ballads in conversation with one another: the title track, inspired by her real-life boyfriend’s old flame, and “Letter To Ur N(ex)t,” a response record in which she writes from the perspective of that past partner. Square in the middle of those two tracks is “Forever,” a song that imagines the type of love worth fending off former girlfriends for in the first place.
Smart money would bet the narrative arc of Letter To Ur Ex is intentional. The song the EP is named after tells the true story of Mahalia responding to her partner’s ex-girlfriend, who at one point was having a hard time letting things go. Eventually, the woman’s constant texts, calls, and unannounced pop-ups began to intrude on the R&B star’s relationship with her man, which ultimately kept all three parties from finding peace.
“It was either like the night before I wrote it or a couple nights before, me and my boyfriend had a bit of a rut. I don’t even know if I could call it a disagreement,” the UK native told Essence’s Girls United back when the single was released in February 2022. “It was more so my being upset about his ex still getting in contact and wanting to meet up […] I remember when I was in school, sometimes they would talk to us about writing letters and if you were ever frustrated about something, write a letter and never send it or burn it. I think that’s what ‘Letter To Ur Ex’ was for me.”
Evidence of Mahalia’s emotional intelligence, “Letter To Ur Ex” is written with more kindness than one would expect given its inspiration. There’s a sense of woman-to-woman honesty in its lyrics, as the 24-year-old forgoes confrontation and instead attempts to counsel her man’s suitor with the wisdom of someone who’s been there before. Softly, she sings, “I don’t wanna sound like a bi**h, no, I don’t wanna/ If you carry on like this, you gon’ get your karma/ Take it from a girl who’s already been through the trauma/ Please stop with the textin’, callin’, showin’ up/ I think you know what you’re doin’ and it ain’t showin’ love.”
Written with similar kindness, “Letter To Ur “N(ex)t” reveals Mahalia’s supposed nemesis was texting, calling, and showing up all those times in search of closure, not a rekindled connection. From the perspective of the other woman, the singer explains her man vanished from the life of his ex-partner without a trace, and, in turn, his scorned lover hopes to not only find out why but to also warn his “next” about the pain that potentially awaits her. It’s a full-circle moment in the project’s narrative, with the cautious euphoria of “Forever” serving as the story’s second act.
“Forever” is more nuanced than most records that dream of loving someone until the end of time. The song is equal parts an ode to lifelong commitment and the responsibility that comes with such a bond. Throughout the track, Mahalia tempers her anticipation of eternity with a corresponding expectation of respect. In doing so, her heels are firmly planted on the ground, her nose is as forward-facing as her eyes are, and her affection is pragmatic in a way that defies every other cliché used to describe a person blinded by love. She often interrupts her musings of bliss with warnings that caution her partner against taking her love for granted, thus paying off the project’s intro and foreshadowing the reveal in its outro.
The opposite poles of “Letter To Ur Ex” and “Letter To Ur N(ex)t” map out a confusing path in which a woman winds up fighting for a man she later learns she should probably run from. At the center of that map is “Forever,” which orients listeners in the moment of a relationship when anything feels possible—even the things that’d make timeless love feel a lot more finite.
If I say it too much, does “I love you” begin to lose meaning?
Not the type to hold back what I’m feeling (Yeah)
‘Cause boundaries don’t help no one no (No one no)
And it ain’t my fault if they all get involved for no reason
Everybody gon’ say what they see, bae (Yeah)
But that don’t mean they know what’s goin’ (So)
Take it from me (Me, yeah-yeah)
I say I’m wrong when it’s all my fault (All my fault, yeah)
Effortlessly (Effortlessly, yeah-yeah)
That’s how I love when you take my heart (Take my, oh-oh)
To a danceable instrumental that Mahalia herself described on Twitter as a “certified bop,” verse one of “Forever” begins with the butterflies that often animate new love. The opening lines of the song find her questioning how many times she can gush over her man before her words start to lose meaning, as she ultimately determines boundaries can’t contain her feelings. The type of love being described here is one that burns with the intensity of a star that’d far outlast either partner’s time on earth.
In the pre-chorus that follows, she reins herself in, grounding the relationship in the reality of imperfect love. Assuring her partner, herself, and maybe even the listener of her level-headedness, Mahalia offers to take the blame should she ever do something to jeopardize her newfound connection.
What’s interesting about this part of the song is it introduces the possibility of eternal love coming with complications that’d test its limits. Yet, the very next line finds the precocious songwriter promising to reciprocate her partner’s affection “effortlessly” for however long he has her heart. This sort of romantic realism is present throughout the rest of “Forever,” but feels especially urgent in the song’s second verse.
I’d rather go too far than, have regrets in the morning
Usually, I don’t move this fast
There’s so many ways to make this last
I need a demonstration, don’t need conversation
Truthfully, we moved way past that
When all fails, just
Take it from me (Take it from me, babe)
I say I’m wrong when it’s all my fault (All my fault)
Effortlessly (Effortlessly, yeah-yeah)
That’s how I love when you take my heart (Oh)
In verse two, Mahalia arrives at a point where choices need to be made. Unflinchingly, she decides she’d rather go too far and move too fast in her pursuit of forever than play it safe and live with regrets. This thought once again maintains a hopeful outlook while referencing the potential repercussions of wanting to spend a lifetime with someone—things could get tough once the infatuation phase wears off, but “there’s so many ways to make this last.”
One of those ways is laid out in the second half of the verse: “I need a demonstration, don’t need conversation.” This age-old stipulation of a partner’s words needing to match their actions is another allusion to Mahalia’s refusal to be taken for granted. But like every other lyric in the song, this demand is delivered with the sort of transparency a person can only earn through trust. To close the verse, the crooner reminds her lover they’ve moved past the point of simply having to state their intentions—now it’s time to act on them. Anyone in a serious relationship will tell you those actions are what ultimately define the lives that two people hope to share.
It seems like forever
And the days like a minute with you (With you)
Makin’ sure we never (Never, oh, oh-oh)
Take our love for granted
Take over my sunset (Take over my sunset)
It’ll feel like, sound like, look like, smell like, forever
So don’t take my love for granted (Granted, yeah)
The chorus is the part of “Forever” that’s best suited for singing alongside your partner in a club or an R&B party. This is especially true when it reappears toward the end of the record right before the beat switch. Containing the song’s most saccharine songwriting, each line reads more joyous than the last, as Mahalia sings of days passing like minutes and a love that feels, sounds, and smells like forever.
Yet, there’s a bittersweetness to the hook’s final lyric leading to the transition. As the proverbial listener takes in all of the song’s certified bop-ness, swaying on the dance floor with their drink in one hand and the palm of their partner in the other, “Forever” cuts its climax short to once again remind whoever needs reminding, “So don’t take my love for granted.”
What’s heard next sounds like another song altogether, as if there’s a hidden sixth track in Mahalia’s five-part Letter To Ur Ex. Over a slower, more stripped-down version of the original beat, the sensitive songbird implores her partner not to mistake her devotion for dependency. “My love is sacred, so don’t you waste it/ Hurt is contagious, if you don’t want it, I’ll give it away, yeah,” she sings.
Despite “Letter To Ur Ex” being inspired by a real-life relationship, it’d be irresponsible to assume the same of “Letter To Ur N(ex)t,” which is why I’ll refrain from making similar assumptions about “Forever.” But as all three songs seem to represent successive stages of a relationship, I can’t help but wonder if the latter two are connected in the way they go about reckoning with what lies ahead when we choose to love someone.
As Mahalia closes “Forever” singing, “Don’t get complacent, thinking the situation’s never changing/ A little effort is all that I crave,” it’s clear the future is on her mind. She’s just prepared to explore that future with or without the person she currently considers her soulmate.