When Nicole Wray hit the scene in 1998 as a spry 17-year-old, people were transfixed by her sultry voice and wholesome girl-next-door beauty. She delivered her debut album, Make It Hot, with a certain mature vibe that most teenagers could never pull off, and her deal with Missy Elliotts Goldmind record label gave her an instant credibility with the masses. The album went gold in the first month and made the Top Five on the Billboard charts, yet even with three hot singles and videos, Nicole did not find true happiness in her situation.
After an amicable parting with Goldmind, she took a break to clear her head and make some music on her own. Nicole eventually teamed up with Roc-A-Fella Records to begin work on a new album in 2004, and everything began to come full circle in her life. Her latest single If I Was Your Girlfriend is hot on the radio and in the clubs right now, and is proving to be a fantastic prelude to her upcoming album, Love Child.
Nicole took some time during a recent AllHipHop.com photo shoot to talk with us about dedication to her craft, her time away from the industry, and the things that inspire her to persevere in a time when the business of R&B is so fragile.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: I understand that you have some military background in your family and you were in ROTC as well. How do you think that those experiences actually prepared you for the music industry in a way that was maybe different from what anyone else has had?
Nicole: Oh wow. ROTC in high school kind of taught me to humble myself a lot and to really be focused and to pay attention because it was a lot of stuff that was hands on like the rifles, you gotta be focused and learn the left, right, left. The book work and listening to my dad's stories growing up I was like wow - you really have to be focused or you'll be living on the damn edge. But I always loved singing and I always wanted to do what the guys did. Everything my brother did I wanted to do, if he was rapping I'm rapping, if he's hanging off of a tree, I'm gonna hang off a tree, if he's beatboxing I'm gonna beatbox. I think I'm unique in my own way because I'm not like the average girl, I'm very different in a lot of ways. I respect myself for one; I don't really get involved in a lot of negative he said, she said. I kind of kept it in my head [to stay away from that].
The music really taught me how to be humble because I'm talking to you, doing interviews and being seen in the public eye so that kind of helped me a little more with the music. I've seen artists come in the game wildin' out like [it makes me say] You say you came from where? You sure you didn't come from the jungle? It kind of taught me to humble myself and to be positive. When I talk to young girls and go to schools, and I'm being the motivational speaker, I can say I came from this background and this is what helped me. So if you go down this path then anything you branch off into in life will be so much easier. ROTC, my dad's stories, my mom being a single parent, all of that helped me to humble myself.
AHHA: Obviously military training in any sense is gonna put you on par with guys to where you're not treated special because you're a woman. They break you down to build you up to instill pride. In a lot of ways you came into the industry at 17-years-old being looked at as a sex symbol. Did it conflict with your sensibilities in what you were raised to do versus what you were being marketed as?
Nicole: In a sense [it didn't really conflict] because I already knew what I stood for and that's part of the game, if you're a female doing anything in life. If I was a lawyer at a firm with a bunch of guys and I come in there with a little skirt on, I'm a woman so it's gonna be looked at. But as long as I respect myself, the men are going to respect me at the end of the day, so that's all good.
AHHA: How did all of your experiences with your first label deal and the split with Missy play into you getting with the Roc and having to go through what Damon Dash calls boot camp for Roc?
Nicole: Starting with Missy - I wouldn't say that was boot camp because it happened so fast. I met her one day and the next day I was on a plane to Philly doing background vocals for Aaliyah, 702 or whoever it was that she wanted me to do. It was a learning experience and it helped me today, because I can sit in a studio and write a song in five to ten minutes because of what I did back then, [when I] watched her or Pharrell or whoever not knowing that I was gonna use that today. Now it's really more of a boot camp because it's real this time. Back then it was not a joke - but I was young. I could do something back then and, Okay it ain't my fault, I don't know any better, [and] She's young. But now I know I have to grind, I can't mess up on stage, I have to be in the gym, I have to practice my songs because it can't fall on anyone else at the end of the day but me. My mother is not beside me, she's in the background but she isn't beside me like she was when I first started.
So now I look at it like it's boot camp, I'm grinding , I'm in the studio every night which I do anyway because I love music. If I want to be the top star or to be in the eyes of the young audience and do what I love to do which is music, then I have to work hard for it. So this is boot camp [compared to] before, with Missy it just happened so fast and then it was all gone. But I do believe things happen for a reason, I had to see the struggle to get to this point. I had to be in my room crying like, What's going on with my life?, waking up with tears everyday like, What am I going to do with my life? Nobody is helping me, I can call the labels but nobody's really fucking with me right now. So what is it that I need to do to get myself together? That's when I decided [to leave] Virginia for a minute and to go to New York.
After I got my release [from Goldmind] it took me two years, I was in Virginia, I went back home I was staying with my mom. I'm looking at her, she's looking at me she's going to work I'm still at home just sitting there - but at night I would be in the studio until the sun came up, I would do four songs a night, just grinding it out. I have over 200 songs. In that process when people say, What were you doing? - I was in church, I went to bible study, I had this raggedy ass car... I had a '87 BMW. This was after Missy. I used to be at the light and people would ride up laughing like That's Nicole Wray. [laughs] I don't give a damn I'm going to the studio, I'm going to grind it out and you will see. People will respect it, people that see my career now and look back to when I was grinding it out they say, I see what you were doing it for, I see where you were trying to go - but nobody was really trying to help me.
AHHA: Not to mention, back then, I get a good understanding of you being kind of sheltered in the game, having somebody mentoring you the whole way - and all of a sudden you're out and nobody's there for you, so you have to change your attitude.
Nicole: Nobody. Solo. I had to watch everything I did because I didn't want to be one of those artists that come out and they're young and they get involved in drugs, they're out wildin' . Then when they try to make a comeback, their reputation is so messed up it's too late. Like I said, I came from a humble background, a spiritual background. I kind of used that to say, Okay, I'm not gonna go to this party, because I'm not here to do that. That's gonna happen - I'm gonna party, like I have parties going on tomorrow night, whatever. What I did was just politic, if I was at a party I was only politicking, like getting a number, Okay, let's go to the studio - I was working. I was just doing songs and going to labels - some people shut the doors, some people listened. Some people said, Oh, you can write a song for so-and-so, but I don't really know how to market you. But when I came over here to Roc-A-Fella they just opened up their doors and showed me love.