In May 1998, the same month that U.K. rising star Mahalia was born, Brandy and Monica released “The Boy Is Mine,” the R&B duet which eventually reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and earned the two singers a Grammy.
“What’s really amazing is they’re both completely different but they came together and complemented each other,” Mahalia tells Billboard of Brandy and Monica’s respective vocal approaches. “I wanted to bring that vibe back.”
Two decades after “The Boy Is Mine” topped the charts, Mahalia has caught the attention of diehard R&B fans with “What You Did,” a laidback duet with “Boo’d Up” star Ella Mai that was released last September and has peaked at No. 15 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. The pair met a year earlier, backstage at Mahalia’s concert in Los Angeles, where she revealed plans for her debut album, last year’s Love and Compromise. The record was technically finished when Mai texted Mahalia asking if she could take part.
“It literally came together in less than 36 hours — it was a crazy turnaround,” Mahalia recalls of the track, which, unlike “The Boy Is Mine,” finds the singers brushing off romantic partners instead of sparring with each other. “We submitted the album two days later. It was a perfect accident.”
While growing up in Syston, Leicestershire, Mahalia was introduced to the world of music by her parents — her mother was the lead singer in a band, while her dad assisted with backing vocals, guitar and songwriting. “In my head I knew, even if it wasn’t going to be singing, I knew that I wanted to be on stage in some way or another,” she recalls. After finding her voice while performing at mass at Catholic school, the singer wrote her first song, titled “My Angel,” at 8 years old. “I was this kid almost searching for a problem,” she says with a laugh. “The song is basically about losing somebody quite close, whether that be a friend or family member. It was really cute.”
Three years later, the singer used her newfound skill of playing guitar and began uploading covers to YouTube. As she entered her teen years, with the support of her parents, Mahalia made her rounds in the local music market. “My parents would let me play my songs for different people,” she explains. “At that time, I was working so hard on getting my name out there as much as I could. I met a lot of influential people in the industry — bloggers, journalists, radio DJs — who started to take notice of my live shows.”
Mahalia soon began putting songs on Soundcloud and drew the attention of, among other people, Ed Sheeran. “The big turning point was when he tweeted my Soundcloud link and he said, ‘Everyone needs to check out this 13-year-old girl,’” she says. “Maybe two or three months later, I signed to Atlantic [Records].”
Now 21 years old, Mahalia is influenced by old-school R&B, soul and her Jamaican background. She also has an affinity for throwback samples: her track “Simmer,” featuring Burna Boy, draws from Beenie Man’s 1997 crossover smash “Who Am I (Sim Simma),” while “What You Did” samples Grammy-nominated 2002 hit “Oh Boy” by Cam’ron.
The latter immediately brought back memories for Mahalia as soon as producer Andrew “Pop” Wansel shared the production. “I lost my sh-t!” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is my whole childhood!’ My brother is such a massive hip-hop head, and he used to play it all the time.” Then last month, the rapper was secured for the official remix. “When you grow up listening to such a household name, I don’t ever think you expect to get that person [on your song],” she explains. “For me, that felt like a historical moment. I was literally over the moon — I called everybody.”
While the goal is to capture the audience across the pond, the singer has made sure not to forget her U.K. roots. Much of her music is dotted with a heavy British accent, as Mahalia prefers to sing how she speaks so listeners immediately know where she is from. “I definitely feel like I’m doing this for people who are from small places [like my hometown],” she says. “It’s not an easy thing to deal with when you’re from a regional area like Leicester, particularly because everything tends to happen in London. So I really think it’s an important thing to talk about and be proud of.”
Love and Compromise is a nostalgic project: the songs recall the turn-of-the-century glory days of R&B-pop, where female singers and male rappers came together for now-iconic collaborations (think Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule’s “I’m Real” remix, Ja Rule and Ashanti’s “Always on Time,” and Jay-Z and Mya’s “Best of Me” remix). R&B’s supposed mortality is always in question — most recently, Diddy announced plans to “bring true R&B back.” But Mahalia thinks that R&B doesn’t need to be revived, highlighting rising artists like Daniel Caesar, Lucky Daye, Summer Walker and H.E.R.
“We’re moving with the times, and people are creating a new lane,” she explains. “And I think that should be celebrated as opposed to talking about what’s missing.”