Mabel: High Expectations review – Pop rockets from a rising star
“I got high expectations. You’re gonna have to get this right”. On her highly anticipated debut album, Mabel opens with what seems to be a sentiment aimed at herself more than anyone else. A rising star in the UK’s music scene, the 23-year-old comes from a musical dynasty so the pressure to perform comes down on her twofold and, thankfully, she doesn’t let us down.
There’s a natural coolness to Mabel. Raised in Sweden by her parents Neneh Cherry – yes, the Neneh Cherry of Buffalo Stance fame – and Cameron McVey, who produced albums for Massive Attack, All Saints and Sugababes (the original and the second line-up), and carrying a north London twang, she had no chance of being anything but compelling. Where most artists her age would have had to cut their teeth on cutesie tunes for a younger audience, she cuts straight to the chase with this very slick and very mature R&B album.
Don’t Call Me Up, a dancehall-inspired pop rocket, is undoubtedly one of the songs of the summer – nay, the year – with its anthemic chorus and cataclysmic, bass-heavy breakdown that causes a tremble on the dance floor. Using attitude as armour, she delivers an all or nothing stance on the pulsating and self-destructive We Don’t Say, which sounds like a response to the narcotically-charged music of The Weeknd, and running off a recharged playground chant and clap beat, she taunts a lover into giving her more on Selfish Love.
Now back living in London with her parents, Mabel is an essential member of the new generation of Cool Britannia but her heritage plays a huge role in her music. Her muso grandfather Ahmadu Jah – Cherry’s father – is from Sierra Leone and western drumming patterns are worked through drum machines on songs like Mad Love and Put Your Name On It. Stockholm is the mecca of sad pop with acts, with local heroes Robyn, Lykke Li and Tove Lo steadily providing teary bangers this side of the millennium, and Mabel has absorbed the typically Swede methodical approach to songwriting and, through a Cool Girl lens, she remains sex positive and honest about her feelings throughout. On ballads like Trouble and I Belong To Me, she lets down her guard and gives an insight into her more sensitive side. In these raw moments, she cuts back on the low-slung, slurred affectations – ones that Ariana Grande favours on her latest albums – and puts more power into her vocals.
A frequent collaborator with other UK hip-hop and R&B hotshots, songs like Finders Keepers with Kojo Funds, Cigarette with Stefflon Don and Raye and Fine Line with Not3s, which performed exceptionally well on the charts, are listed as bonus tracks, placing a clear divide between the artist that was and the artist who’s en route to becoming a superstar. In Ireland alone, Mabel has gone from supporting Harry Styles in the 3Arena in April 2018 to selling out her January show in the Olympia on the day of sale.
Very much a zeitgeist pop star, Mabel has tapped into the unfazed pop style that singers like Dua Lipa, Rihanna and, more recently, Billie Eilish have been flooding the charts with for the last couple of years. Unfortunately, this means that the production on the album feels too safe or too familiar at times. Unfortunately, very few songs pound as hard as Don’t Call Me Up but as she progresses in her career, hopefully she’ll stop riding the popular chart trends and will soon be the one who creates them.