The voice of singer-songwriter Nikki Jean was first introduced to many rap music followers on the hook to “Hip Hop Saved My Life” by Lupe Fiasco. The inspirational track off the Chicago rhymer’s second album The Cool was only a taste of Nikki’s talent.
The former lead vocalist of the Philadelphia band Nouveau Riche established her own artistic gravitas with the 2011 album Pennies in a Jar. For the project, Nikki co-wrote songs with some of the most accomplished musicians of the last 50 years.
Pennies included contributions from a few of Nikki’s musical heroes like Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and others. She even forged an alliance with the incomparable Folk/Rock legend Bob Dylan to complete his unfinished work “Steel and Feathers (Don’t Ever).”
For many performers, having a career that encompasses collaborations with Bob Dylan and Lupe Fiasco, as well as touring with Kanye West and Rihanna, would signal a nearly completed bucket list. But Ms. Jean is not even close to calling it quits.
Nikki dropped her new 6-track EP Champagne Water in November, and the St. Paul, Minnesota native teamed up with Lupe again for three cuts on his forthcoming Tetsuo & Youth LP. AllHipHop.com spoke with Nikki Jean about her new collection, uniting with Lu and TDE’s Ab-Soul, and a lot more.
The title track for Champagne Water includes lyrics where you say you dreamt about being Jesus. What inspired that particular song?
I’m always struck by the paradox between the imagery of Jesus and the usage of Jesus in popular culture. Whether it’s for politics, a Jesus piece in the club, a reason to start a war, a reason to look down on someone else, or a reason to be loving to someone else. I’ve always thought there is a big paradox between that and the actual text we have pertaining to Jesus.
They always say he was a pretty cool dude. A lot of times “holy rollers” are opposed to alcohol, partying, loose morals, and all these other things. But Jesus didn’t turn wine into water. He turned water into wine. Jesus knew how to have a good time. [laughs] Jesus was way cooler than most of the people that talk about him all the time.
Then you always see guys with these Jesus pieces at the club. If the Jesus piece on their neck could see what was actually happening around them, I think he’d have some pretty crazy stories. That was basically it.
Do you consider yourself to be a religious person?
No, I just consider myself to be a thoughtful person. I think about the world and the way the world works. We all have guiding principles we use to direct our actions through life. I don’t subscribe to religion, because I think it causes more problems than it solves for most of the world. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. I think there’s a very big difference between religion and faith.
Another track on the EP, “Tommy’s Song,” is so relevant as it relates to Ferguson and the Eric Garner situation. What was your reaction when you found out about those particular grand jury decisions?
I wrote the song for my little brother. That’s who Tommy is. I wrote it over a year ago, before any of this started happening. I think the reason everybody is so moved to action by Ferguson and the Eric Garner situation isn’t because they’re lone incidents that upset us. It’s because a song that I wrote last year is just as relevant had I written it ten years ago. It was relevant five years ago. It’s relevant this year. It’s an ongoing problem.
When the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict came down people on my team said, “We should drop it now.” Our sad – but true – overwhelming thought was, “You know what? It’s going to be relevant again. It’s going to happen again.”
I’m really encouraged by people speaking out and protesting. I hope it’s not a fashion statement, but something that can keep people’s attention for a while. Real change is going to take committed focus and effort.
Would you like to see more artists be more vocal about these issues? Do you think the Hip Hop community should be doing more?
For me as a fan, it means a lot to me when artists who I respect and support with money speak on issues that are relevant to me. Obviously, my fan base is much smaller than some, but I try to speak out about my true feelings.
I might lose a fan. People say offensive things in songs to gain fans all the time. I resent that people would say something offensive to gain a fan, but won’t say something true and powerful in fear of losing a fan. That offends me.
I don’t know who Trayvon, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner listened to, but I’m sure a lot of those artists haven’t said anything. It hurts me to know that someone who supported me in fulfilling my dreams has unjustly died, and I have a chance to say something and don’t. That would hurt me.
I understand when people give money anonymously, but that has nothing to do with you speaking your mind about the issues of the day. A lot of these people would follow their pop icons off a bridge. They would also follow you to be more politically active and follow you to be more socially conscious.
You’ve worked with Lupe Fiasco a lot. There are some of his fans that feel his last few albums haven’t been as strong as say The Cool or Food & Liquor. From your experience working with him, what would be your response to fans that want that “original sound” from Lupe?
I think it’s always an interesting balance that artists strike. If you look at any great artist over the length of their career, they have to grow and change. There are going to be parts of their career that you’re going to be more drawn to.
We grow attached to artists in the state we fall in love with them in, and sometimes they evolve into something we loved equally as much or more. Like Michael Jackson, we loved him in The Jackson 5. He grew up, and we continued to love him. At the same time there are people whose sound you’re no longer in love with.
I like early Kanye West. I respect current Kanye, but I love Late Registration. It’s nostalgic for me. I love The Purple Tape from Raekwon. He could come out with a new project tomorrow, and if I had not heard the previous album I would say, “This is the sh*t.” But because I’m so in love with The Purple Tape, I might say, “But it’s not The Purple Tape.”
In terms of The Cool, everybody’s nostalgic for it. But it was a moment in time. Lupe is an amazing lyricist. He still has amazing concepts. He has to be allowed to grow and change as an artist. Some people will feel that, some people will not.
You’re on several tracks on Lupe’s upcoming album. Did the two of you go into the process planning to do so many tracks together or were [the ones on Tetsuo & Youth] just the particular songs that came out of the sessions?
We’re both out here in L.A. quite a bit. Lupe recorded a lot of the album here. Every once in a while I would get a text that said, “Hey can you come to the studio?” It would always be like “Come to the studio now.” [laughs]
I think it just worked out that way. He made a number of amazing tracks. One of my favorite songs is not even going to be on the album. I’m not on it, but I’m sure people will get to hear it in the future. He made so many songs for the album, and it’s just kind of the luck of the draw so many of the songs I’m part of made the album. I’m really happy to be part of it.
You also seem to have a close working relationship with Ab-Soul. How did the two of you first connect?
I listened to [Ab-Soul’s] Control System. Then I went to Datpiff, typed in Ab-Soul, and started listening to his whole catalog – way before Lupe and I started working on his album.
I liked Ab as an artist before I met him as a person. I thought I would like him as a person, because his content is very real. I don’t like fake rappers or artists. When people start talking too gangsta in their s**t, you look them in their eye, and you think “I don’t know if you’re living that life.” I always felt like Ab was really genuine, very smart, and thoughtful. I was really inspired by him.
In the process of listening to his various mixtapes, I thought “Drift Away” was a great song. A lot of rappers have great concepts, but they don’t write great songs. But “Drift Away” was a really good song, so I decided to cover it.
When I started working with Lu again he told me Ab was on the album. I told him, “I covered one of his songs.” He said, “I know. He heard it. He liked it.” So then I said, “ So… Lu, you think you could introduce me?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
Are you interested in doing more acting work?
I go back and forth all the time. Songwriting is really my passion. I think that actors have to be a blank slate. Where as an artist I don’t really want to be a blank slate. We have an idea of who all these artists are. Whatever role you play has to be informed by something that’s not too far off base from you are as an artist, or it would be weird for your fans.
I enjoy acting. If I were to do it, I would want to do it right. I’ve had acting training, but I would want more. We’ll see how it goes. I’m not pursuing it, but I’m not against it.
People that start off in the public as a singer tend to do better at making that transition from singing to acting. There are artists like Jamie Foxx and Jared Leto, but for the most part actors don’t seem to do as well switching over to singing. Do you think that different approach you said singers have plays a role in the reason why the transition from acting to singing doesn’t seem to go as well?
For me, Jamie is an amazing actor, and he can sing his ass off. But when I look at Jamie Foxx, I just cannot take him seriously as an R&B singer. That’s my personal thing. It’s like there are gangsters in the U.K. who talk gully, Hip Hop slang. But they just don’t put that fear in me. It just doesn’t match my perception of what that is. It throws me off.
Jamie is really funny too, and I think once you’ve seen someone be really hilarious it’s more difficult [to listen to] “sexy time” music. [laughs] It’s like, “I remember who you are.”
Does [the In Living Color character] Wanda keep popping in your head every time you hear him sing?
All that! [laughs] I’ve seen enough of his sketches where he bursts into song, so I don’t know when he’s going to burst back into his sketch.
What about other areas of entertainment? Would you ever do a reality TV show like R&B Divas?
No, never, nope, definitely not.
Do you have issues with those type of shows?
I don’t have issues with those type of shows. In my process of writing songs, I write a lot from my personal experiences and from my life. That’s enough. You don’t need to turn my actual life into a circus.
The other thing is it would be the most boring reality TV show. I don’t like drama. If I liked drama, I think I would probably be more famous, because I would be willing to put myself in situations so I could be on TMZ.
I don’t like that. I don’t like messy. Other people can choose to have a messy life and talk about threesomes on Twitter. That’s fine for them. I value my privacy, and you can’t value your privacy and be on a reality TV show at the same time.
Finally, do you believe Hip Hop still has the power to save people’s lives?
I believe people have the power to save their own lives. Whatever you imbrue your dreams with has the power to save your life. To the extent that Hip Hop ever did, it still does. But it’s really not what Hip Hop gives to you, but what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it.
The people I know who are well fed by their art – and I don’t mean financially – they get so much out of doing it. Whether it’s just release, peace, accomplishment, or expression. Hip Hop has been a source of that for people because the entry fee is so low.
If you want to become a rapper you basically only need your mind. I think that’s what really captivated people, and it still captivates people. Almost everyone I meet is like “I rap a little bit.” That’s dope.
If people think Hip Hop is going to save their life by them getting a million hits on Soundcloud, having a viral video on YouTube, or even having a record deal – that’s not how it does it. It does it through you being able to find your personal truth and expressing that to the world.
It makes you stronger in terms of you knowing who you are. Expressing yourself through art helps people figure themselves out, and that can save people’s lives. It saves people’s lives every day.
Download Nikki Jean’s Champagne Water EP on iTunes.
Stream Champagne Water below.