M8alla: Don’t Save Me for Later | [Self-released; Aug. 4 on Bandcamp | Aug. 18 across all major streaming platforms]

The hip-hop strut and far-out sounds of Don’t Save Me for Later might startle fans who think of M8alla strictly as a pop R&B artist, but her collaboration with Jerm Scorsese was written in the stars.

“I’ve never met someone—no, I’ve never met a man who’s as into astrology as I am,” the singer and songwriter Mballa Mendouga says, laughing, on a Zoom call from her new apartment in Los Angeles. “He was going into my charts in the first session, and I was like, I know what you’re saying; I’m just amazed that you know what you’re saying.”

Jerm Scorsese, a Raleigh-based producer in the big-eared tradition of The Neptunes and Timbaland, furnished beats for the Durham rapper Kelly Kale’s breakout album, Give ‘Em Hell, last summer. Mendouga, who knew Jerm socially, was especially stunned by “Hot (If You Nasty),” which begins with a stereo-panned swirl of synths and a sinister laugh.

“Jerm does this thing I love where you hear the first sound and it’s like, whoa, where is this going? What am I listening to, and why do I kind of like it?” says Mendouga, who moved to Chapel Hill in 2009 after being born in Paris and growing up in Washington, D.C., the child of Cameroonian diplomats. “People see or hear me and think, she’s R&B, she’s African. But he gets a side of me that I don’t know a lot of people have brought out.”

That summer, Mendouga and Kale started working on a song together, and Jerm sent Kale a beat that he said Mendouga could have. When she received it, she was with Shermar Davis—the Triad-area singer-songwriter that had a single, “So Far Gone,” on the chic Parisian electronic label Maison Kitsuné last year—who was helping her work on the follow-up, produced by Alec Lomami, of her 2017 debut album, Never Leave Quietly.

“Alec is a very calm guy who lets you do you; he’s incredibly patient,” Mendouga says. “He had given me all the beats to write on, but I just didn’t believe in myself anymore.”

Davis became Mendouga’s musical lifeline when she was struggling with writer’s block and self-doubt, afflictions that parted long enough to reveal the ray of sunshine that was last summer’s “Mek Mi Anxious.” But that was a collaboration with Durham’s Treee City, separate from the album, and she’d written the song years before.

“I owe Shermar the world, because I was so discouraged after ‘Mek Mi Anxious,’ from both the state of the world and the fact that we couldn’t go out and support one of my best songs,” Mendouga says. Davis had often reached out to ask if she needed help with her music, and finally, she said yes. They started getting together in her home studio every couple of weeks, and with his encouragement, the music started to flow. When she got that first beat from Jerm, Davis urged her to get on it right away. She added a verse she had written but never used and sent it back. When she got together with Jerm, she wrote the song we hear on the spot.

“I wrote a song in 45 minutes, and it felt really good,” Mendouga says. That song is “Gimme Racks,” a raunchy future-trap workout that opens with a weird, mooing bassline. Mendouga was a fan of the Durham rapper Ducee’ DropTop’s song “Zaza,” so she got him on the track and shaped her flow to his.

“He has this nice rasp, a low, whispery tone to his voice,” she says. “So I was like, yeah, I think I’m just going to float on this; I’m not going to do the most.”

The three-song EP, a distinct project from the album it helped to revitalize, was mastered with the clarity its baroque style demands by the Greensboro-based engineer Laphelle Taylor. On the ego check “What Happened?” another woozy bass mingles with Asian strings, while lead single and video “Lady with a Choppa” is a laid back but tightly wound duet with Kale.

In a way, it’s the flipside of “Mek Mi Anxious”: Instead of being about “anxiety over how a relationship was playing out, it’s like, OK, this person is playing,” Mendouga says. That no-bullshit energy was cultivated by Jerm; Mendouga vividly remembers his first reaction to the tracks she’d been working on for the album: “He was like, ‘I can see that you’re in your Cancer moon,’ because I was talking about love. ‘That’s cool, but I want to balance you out. I want you to come into your sun sign, your Aries vibe.’ I was like, OK, OK, I remember her. I also very much believe in the power of the tongue. I was singing a lot of heartbreak songs, and that’s not who I want to be. I wanted something boastful where I could assert myself but also speak prosperity into my future.”

The partial move to LA—Mendouga still rents an apartment in Durham—was a part of that vision. She’d been traveling there periodically to work on music and make connections, finding a network of fellow North Carolina expats. In June, the move unfolded as if ordained by fate.

“All the places I found on websites were too expensive,” she says. “But I walked into a nice building in my budget in Koreatown, run by a woman from the South, so I’m getting Southern hospitality in a family-owned apartment complex in LA.” Jerm moved to the city around the same time.

With this fresh start on fertile ground, the second M8alla album may be with us sooner than later.

But as for whether it portends a bright future as a recording artist or as a songwriter, a collaborator, and who knows what else—well, Mendouga has gained enough momentum as an artist to know the cost, and the self-trust to let the stars say if it’s worth it.

“I cater my time to authentic individual relationships, so the demand for content creation and access to me as a person, if I’m being honest, can be very taxing,” she says, spoken like a true Cancer. “But now I’m writing songs not just for me, but submitting them to bigger artists here, because ultimately, what I love is the writing and the studio. I want this project to do whatever it’s supposed to do: If that means catapulting me into the songwriter space, I want that, because I love that. If that means catapulting me into the artist space, I’ll take that, because I am that.”

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