Earlier this year, rising R&B star Ella Mai had a hit with her nearly year-old single “Boo’d Up.” Though R&B has been taking a back seat recently to heavier, trap-focused hip-hop hits and more straightforward pop offerings (which, as it turns out, are sometimes reliant on trap sounds as well), the genre has simultaneously experienced a renaissance, with the emphasis on singing in rap at an all-time high.
It was only a matter of time until an artist like Mai found a way to marry the love and relationship themes of R&B with her stellar singing voice, a clever hook, and instrumentation that mimics other rap-leaning top 40 songs of the moment. Rising to No. 5 — partially off the strength of an adorable, vintage-feeling video, Mai helped remind audiences, and the industry itself, that R&B still has a place at the top of the charts. And, she may have inadvertently paved the way for more R&B slow burners to climb the Billboard charts and rack up Youtube views.
In fact, there was an Easter egg in the “Boo’d Up” video for those paying close attention — a cameo from Mai’s contemporary, Khalid, who is on his way to having the next sleeper hit of 2018 in his recently-released posse cut “OTW.” The song features two other R&B-trap experts, Ty Dolla Sign and 6lack, and though it was released earlier this year (on 4/20, chuckle), somehow, for me it had fallen through the cracks until a friend recommended I check out the song, with special emphasis placed on watching the video. On its own, the song is a playfully crooned ballad about meeting up with a love interest. It’s adorable and soulful, full of throwback vibes but backed by crisp, modern production and boasting solid guest verses.
It recreates a familiar soundscape for Khalid, who broke out as a star last year largely due to the success of his twin hits “Location,” and “Young, Dumb & Broke,” a pair of similarly soulful, slow ballads peppered with crisp, woozy percussion that anchored his debut album American Teen and earned the young Texas native accolades like five (!) Grammy nominations and MTV’s 2017 Best New Artist VMA. And despite appearing on songs for other rising stars like Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish and Normani, “OTW” is the first new music from Khalid as a lead artist since he dropped American Teen.
Similarities aside, it builds off Teen’s aesthetic with a more mature, darker bent that doesn’t sacrifice any of the easy joy Khalid brings to his music, and the sentiment of the track is decidedly Khalid. “OTW” is a song about trust and reliability in a world that offers us despair, ghosting, and corruption as the overarching forces. And it absolutely fucking bangs. Did I mention that the title, “OTW,” is a text message acronym for “On The Way?” This song couldn’t be any more millennial. It’s a blessing in a year of curses.
One small rabbit trail before we get to the video — the author of the Wikipedia entry on the track describes it thusly, “A booty-call theme channels throughout the track, as the artists sing about meeting up with a love interest.” I’d like to quibble with their definition here a bit, as this does not, in fact, sound like a song geared toward a booty call. Booty calls are a wonderful category to belong to, but they exist in a very specific time frame, namely, night, and when the caller is probably intoxicated.