Nicole Wray started her r&b career in 1998, as a precocious seventeen-year-old signed to Missy Elliott’s Goldmind imprint. Her first album, Make It Hot, had a sultry Timbaland-produced title track for a lead single, complete with a slick video featuring cameos from Aaliyah and Ginuwine. “I’d go to school and show my friends pictures of me and Lil’ Kim in a store buying wigs and hanging out with Missy Elliott and Faith Evans,” Wray remembers. But instead of becoming a teenage starlet, Wray went on to endure nearly two decades of unreleased albums and aborted label deals — one disappointing setback after another.
Those trials ended last week, when Wray released her second debut album — this time as Lady Wray. Queen Alone, which dropped on September 23 via the Brooklyn-based indie Big Crown Records, is a gritty but upbeat retro-soul album that highlights her remarkable voice and features backing by the El Michels Affair band. Finally, she sounds at home. “I was in a very happy state of mind while recording this one,” she says. “It’s so organic and it felt really cool and I felt free.”
Wray started off singing at church and had to stop when her parents divorced. She turned to the songs on the radio, particularly Mariah Carey. She’d perform them at home with the hope that “if I would sing loud enough, my dad would come back.” Instead, Missy Elliott showed up at the door. Wray’s brother had passed through a talent show Missy organized, and he told her about his sister’s flair for singing. Missy’s people called Wray’s mother and set a date for an audition, which Wray nailed. “We just kinda took to each other and became friends and she guided me in my career,” she recalls of Elliott. Missy signed Wray as Goldmind’s first artist.
Suga Mike, a producer on Make It Hot, was just as struck as Elliott by Wray’s talent. “At the time, I had my own artist, Lil Mo, and at that time no other artist had that raw, churchy, powerful voice like Lil Mo.” That is, he remembers, “until the first vocal take Nicole did on ‘Borrowed Time.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, this girl has something special.’ She just blew me away.” But it wasn’t enough to keep her on Goldmind. “Missy was taking on a lot of artists and I was getting drowned out and I had no voice,” says Wray. “I wanted to keep my integrity and went my own separate way.” She says she doesn’t resent Elliott, although Goldmind never released a promised follow-up to the debut.
Wray was at “a low point — I had no management, and it was just me in New York running around with one of my girlfriends.” Enter Damon Dash, who in 2004 offered to sign her to Roc-A-Fella, the label he ran with Jay Z. They were eying a move into r&b and wanted Wray to spearhead the charge. Soon she was spending her days in Manhattan’s Chung King Studios, which the producer 7 Aurelius had outfitted into a futuristic playground with smoke machines and blue lasers. The setting was more “like a blockbuster movie,” she says, than a traditional r&b recording environment.
Wray enjoyed her time at Roc-A-Fella — blithely, it turns out: “I had no idea what was about to happen.” A year after signing, Damon Dash and Jay Z would fall out as their egos clashed over creative and commercial decisions and the label would dissolve, leaving Wray’s career adrift and another of her albums, LoveChild, unreleased.
After Roc-A-Fella’s demise, Wray kept busy by appearing on projects like the Black Keys’ indie-meets-hip-hop experiment BlakRoc, taking a trip to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to provide backing vocals for the Keys’ Brothers album, and briefly forming the modern r&b duo LADY with the singer Terri Walker before the latter promptly quit. They were impressive credits, but Wray lacked a sense of place.
Queen Alone is the uplifting conclusion to her long journey. Recorded at the Diamond Mine in Queens, the project was fashioned in the style of a jam session: The El Michels Affair looped up grooves they’d created, to which Wray would write the lyrics and melody. “She reminds me of Gladys Knight,” says Leon Michels, who plays drums, guitar, keyboards, and saxophone in the band. “She has that type of voice with raw emotion in her vocal takes. Gladys can still do it and Sharon Jones can do it — it’s real, true soul.”
The result is an album that combines Wray’s honeyed, nuanced voice with grooves that reference classic Sixties and Seventies soul. Songs like the punchy “Let It Go” and horn-laden “Do It Again” come off as equal parts emotional and buoyant, as if you’ve plugged into a lost Staple Singers album. Wray sounds free from the devastation of her many industry setbacks.
Fittingly, the first song she recorded was “Smiling,” a shimmering track with a hook that sounds like a mantra. “I just started humming and singing, ‘Just keep on smiling.’ ” Finally, she can.
Lady Wray and the El Michaels Affair play Brooklyn Night Bazaar on September 29.