Mabel makes a pitch for prop­er pop star­dom on High Expectations’

Review: Following her smash hit Don't Call Me Up, the UK singer steps towards the major league.

Rat­ing: 35

In pop, there’s a dif­fer­ence between a hit and a smash. The for­mer might be suc­cess, sure – plac­ing in the top 10 Sin­gles Chart or tick­ing past the 50m plays mark on YouTube, but it’s the lat­ter that has the abil­i­ty to cement a career. These days, it can mean the dif­fer­ence between a new act get­ting the chance to release a debut album, or them being stuck chuck­ing out mix­tape after EP after buzz track in the hope that some­thing sticks. 

For a while it looked like 23-year-old Mabel (who also hap­pens to be Neneh Cherry’s daugh­ter) would be trapped in that major label pur­ga­to­ry. In 2015 she arrived with her Sug­ababes-esque debut sin­gle Know Me Bet­ter, while her third sin­gle, the laid-back R&B slow jam Think­ing of You came with a styl­ish video fea­tur­ing the singer and her hooped ear­rings look­ing bored in Peck­ham. So far, so edgy’. Even the hype of her 2017 top 10 hit which show­cased a much more con­fi­dent Mabel, the excel­lent, dance­hall-tinged Find­er Keep­ers, still wasn’t enough to war­rant a debut album. So instead she released the nine track mix­tape Ivy To Ros­es.

But the patience paid off for Mabel ear­li­er this year when that smash final­ly arrived in the shape of Don’t Call Me Up. A glob­al chart behe­moth, pro­duced by Ed Sheer­an col­lab­o­ra­tor Steve Mac, it cement­ed Mabel as a prop­er, high def­i­n­i­tion pop star unafraid to at least try and kick it with the likes of Rihan­na and Beyoncé. 

That smash’s influ­ence, for bet­ter or worse, is all over her debut album High Expec­ta­tions – as is Rihanna’s, specif­i­cal­ly on recent sin­gle, the Rude Boy-aping Mad Love, which is essen­tial­ly a few notes away from a legal notice. Less cal­cu­lat­ed is the loos­er Bad Behav­iour, which mim­ics Ms Fenty’s pen­chant for word­less cho­rus­es, unleash­ing a few choice na, na, nas”. The lyri­cal focus is often on rela­tion­ships, be them in the first throes (the tac­tile Put Your Name On It), slow­ly falling apart (the self-help mantra in piano bal­lad form, I Belong To Me) or kicked to the kerb in the hope of some­thing bet­ter (the Kamille-assist­ed Self­ish Love). Frus­trat­ing­ly, Mabel’s feath­erlight voice, though agile enough to pirou­ette between gen­res, doesn’t always car­ry enough emo­tion­al heft to real­ly make the bal­lads stick, with We Don’t Say… drift­ing past unnoticed. 

More inter­est­ing is the MNEK-pro­duced OK (Anx­i­ety Anthem), which man­ages to ref­er­ence both Lau­ryn Hill and Jessie J but some­how come out the oth­er side unscathed. There are days when the world gets heavy,” Mabel sings over clipped gui­tar and airy beats, before pro­mot­ing 2019’s most nec­es­sary acces­sories, self-care and opti­mism: It’s fine you’re allowed to break, as long as you know everything’s going to be okay”. It’s a gen­uine­ly sweet, heart­felt moment on an album that occa­sion­al­ly feels trapped under a high-gloss sheen, and, one which descends into a Mabel playlist rather than a ful­ly curat­ed album. There’s a real glim­mer of a star there, it’s just still try­ing to shine.

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