Not every middle-school student has Missy Elliott’s endorsement, but that’s how a teenage Nicole Wray started her music career.
“She wasn't Missy Elliott to me then, she was just Melissa, Melissa Elliott,” says Wray now, 20 years later. “I knew she was a songwriter and she was one of the dopests, illest MCs, but I didn’t know who I was meeting.”
Elliott actually lived across the street from Wray’s Virginia middle school then, and that day, after Wray’s brother had convinced Elliott to listen to Wray’s singing, Elliott and Wray were inseparable. After Melissa became Missy, and Wray released her debut album on Missy’s Goldmind label in 1998, it seemed like everything was ready to go sky high.
But it would be 18 years until Wray, now Lady Wray, would release her second solo album, the beautiful, vintage soul of Queen Alone, which came out Sept. 23.
You almost need a who’s-who of the music industry to follow Wray’s career trajectory over the last two decades — Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige and Timbaland to Roc-A-Fella to the Black Keys to Lady to Lee Fields — so we’ve boiled it down to five things you need to know about Lady Wray, the former Missy Elliott protegé.
1. Wray met Elliott in her own living room
“This girl named Missy Elliott is trying to come over here, she wants to meet you and hear you sing,” Wray’s mom told her over the phone, while Wray was over at a friend’s house after middle school.
Wray came home, and Elliott was sitting on her couch.
“I see [Missy], she's sitting there, she has a long ponytail, she's holding these magazines and she introduced herself and she told me who she was working with, like Jodeci and Timbaland — at the time, I didn't know who Timbaland was — and she was working with a group called Sista … and she asked me to sing something for her. And from that moment, she asked my mom, ‘Can I take her with me?’ Actually, it was that same evening. And my mom was like, ‘Cool.’ My mom didn't know her at all [laughs] ... My mom was like, ‘Take my beeper number; if you need me you [can] reach me.’ [Laughs, puts on her mom’s voice]: ‘Well you need to beep me 911 if anything — but you can take Nicole and just let me know she's OK and just take care of her.”
Wray spent all of her non-school time with Elliott, going to parties, performing when she was asked to. This was still when Missy was Melissa Elliott — before she met with Puff Daddy in New York, got signed and blew up.
“It was a grind,” says Wray. “I was always with her, you know, learning the ins and outs, like how to write, as an artist how to carry yourself as an artist, things what to do, things not to do. Kind of like artist development, without having artist development.”
2. None of Wray’s friends believed Wray’s connections to Elliott and her cohort
Wray was featured on Elliott’s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, and when Elliott did blow up and started her own label, the Goldmind, then 17-year-old Wray was her first signee. But she had to prove it to her classmates.
“I don't think they bought the whole I knew Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim and Biggie Smalls, and stuff like that,” remembers Wray, of the early days. “Because I think Biggie had just died [March 1997] and I had met his son when he was a baby, when Faith Evans gave birth to his son ... and I had pictures and I brought it to school [laughs]. And everybody was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I had pictures of Lil’ Kim in the wig shop with her wig, she was buying a wig, she had like a concert that night. I always had pictures of everybody, you know?”
When Wray’s debut album, Make it Hot, was released in 1998, she finally had non-photographic proof. The first single, also the title track, peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and Elliott, Aaliyah and Ginuwine all made cameos in the video.
“It was crazy, I became this famous girl in high school and it was just so awkward but cool at the same time [laughs].”
3. She almost released a second album on Roc-A-Fella Records
After Make it Hot, Wray wasn’t going anywhere with Goldmind. She says she got lost in the shuffle of Missy’s enormous fame — “she was trying to have a label and artists and I think she was too big [and too young] at the time to even handle all of that” — and by 2001, even after releasing a new single from a supposed second album, it was time for Wray to move on. She spent a lot of time in New York trying to find a place to land, which eventually brought her to the halls of Roc-A-Fella Records, owned by Damon Dash, Jay Z and Kareem “Biggs” Burke.
“I went up there one day and I had some music and I met one of the A&Rs and he was like, ‘Oh my God, Nicole Wray is up in here.’ And he said, ‘What have you been doing?’ And I just played him all of my songs and he went nuts. And then that's when ... I got in the grace of Damon Dash and it was history from there.”
But after yet another popular single and supposed second album, Roc-A-Fella fell apart and Wray was left holding the pieces of another album she couldn’t release.
4. Meeting the Black Keys sealed her fate
Wray says she kept in touch with Dash for years — at one point he wanted her to do a reality show, which she declined — but after they’d been out of touch for a while, he called her up out of the blue and said, “I need you to come to New York because this project has your name all over it.”
That project was the Black Keys’ BlakRoc album, and performing on it threw Wray into an entirely different genre.
“I grew up in church, it was always loud, and everybody could sing, and singing from your heart and stuff like that. And then when I [first] got signed, it was like really just straight R&B, sexy, young, sassy, not so much soul going on there. But it's always been in me. So [Dash] introduced me to the [Black Keys], and the songs that I began to listen to, and they were playing everything live and I got on that mic, and they were blown away. And I think from that moment, when Damon Dash called me to come to New York, I lost my mind. I was like, ‘This is my destiny right here.’ Like it was the fiercest soul, rock and roll, everything that I listened to [from] Janis Joplin, Etta James to freakin' Aretha Franklin. All of that stuff that I always listened to.”
Wray would go on to work on the Black Keys’ next album, Brothers, which won a Grammy.
“So that right there? That [Grammy] might have just sealed the coffin, like bam, this is what I’m doing. This is what I'm gonna be doing.”
5. A 3rd, dropped project is how Wray finally released a 2nd solo album
In 2012, Wray teamed up with Terri Walker, whom she calls “the Nicole Wray of Europe,” as Walker had experienced similar ups and downs in her solo career. The two started retro-soul duo Lady, released a self-titled album in 2013 on Truth and Soul Records — and then Walker dropped out to pursue her solo career.
But in the end, Wray had already found her solo home. Truth and Soul eventually morphed into Big Crown Records, the home of Lee Fields and the Expressions, and where Wray was finally able to release a second solo album, Queen Alone, this September.
“A lot of people don't understand when one door closes, another one opens. And the one door was closed for a long time and I kept trying to get through the door, like I'm trying to get in there and it would not open. So another one opened and it was this vintage soul, and it's been open for a while and I really love it. It's true and near and dear to me. 'Cause I get to just feel free and be myself and sing about what I've always wanted to sing about, you know?”
Like writing her new single, “Do it Again,” for Lee Fields’ album Faithful Man, and choosing to release it herself. Lady Wray can feel free to do that now.
Lady Wray plays the Halifax Pop Explosion on Thursday, Oct. 20, at the Forum, 8:45 p.m. Get Queen Alone now.