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In the wake of successful debut albums from artists like Brandy, Monica, and Aaliyah, the latter half of the 90s saw an influx of teenage vocalists looking to follow in their footsteps and become the next big thing in R&B. Among this new crop of talent was Nicole Wray, a singer who would rise to stardom during the summer of 1998 with her Top 5 Billboard smash “Make It Hot,” only to seemingly vanish from the scene and fade into obscurity following the release of her debut album. While casual R&B fans may have written Wray off after her failure to mirror the success of “Make It Hot,” she has remained active on the musical front, recording and writing music for herself and others while battling through a number of false-starts and industry red tape over the past two decades.
Born May 2, 1981 in Salinas, California, Wray was raised in Portsmouth, Virginia in a religious household, with church being a big part of her life from an early age. Beginning her journey as a singer at age nine at Holy Light Church of Deliverance, in Portsmouth, Wray quickly earned a reputation as a promising vocalist, wowing congregations locally. However, after an intense encounter with the church’s pastor over her singing secular music at age 15, Wray’s aspirations of becoming a gospel singer would be replaced with a foray into R&B, with stars like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton among her strongest influences during her teenage years.
The following year, Wray caught her big break after singing for fellow Portsmouth rep Missy Elliott through her older brother, who facilitated a meeting between Wray, their mother and Missy at Wray’s home. Comparing Wray to a “young Mary J. Blige,” Missy was so blown away by Wray’s performance that she vowed to sign the teenager to a contract once she started her own record label—a promise she kept after launching her imprint, The Goldmind, Inc., through Elektra Records in 1996. The following year, Wray made her debut appearance (as Nicole) on “Gettaway,” a song from Missy Elliott’s ’97 debut, Supa Dupa Fly, on which Wray spat a rap verse written by Missy, as opposed to showcasing her vocal talent. However, Wray would get her chance to shine sooner than later, as the platinum success of Supa Dupa Fly created anticipation around Missy and The Goldmind, Inc.’s follow-up release, which just so happened to be Wray’s own solo debut.
On June 2, 1998, Missy Elliott and The Goldmind, Inc. unleashed Wray’s debut single, “Make It Hot,” a sizzling cut featuring appearances from recent rapper and signee Mocha and Missy herself, as well as uncredited vocals from Kelly Price. Written by Missy, Timbaland, and A. Richards, and produced by Timbaland, “Make It Hot” would quickly become one of the hottest songs in the country during the summer of 1998, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 by August 1, 1998, a position the song would hold for two consecutive weeks. Accompanied by a music video set in a theater and directed by Christopher Erskin, and boasting cameos from Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Timbland & Magoo, and Playa, “Make It Hot” had all of the bells and whistles that a debut single from a relatively unknown artist could hope for, but when Wray’s debut album of the same name finally arrived 20 years ago on August 25, 1998, it charted at No. 42 on the Billboard 200, a paltry figure, at best.
While singles “I Can’t See,” the follow-up to “Make It Hot,” and “Eyes Better Not Wander” would both chart, neither came close to mirroring the breakout success of “Make It Hot,” resulting in Wray’s debut album failure to gain traction or attain gold or platinum status. In spite of “Make It Hot” being certified gold, and contributions from hitmakers like Missy Elliott and Static Major, the actual album received mixed reviews and was deemed a commercial disappointment, causing Wray to regroup and return back to the drawing board in hopes of avoiding the same fate on her next album. Keeping her name afloat with a high-profile on Missy Elliott’s 1999 single “All n My Grill,” Wray began writing and recording for her sophomore release, tentatively titled Elektric Blue, releasing the first song from the project, “I’m Looking” in July 2001. However, with Missy Elliott emerging as one of the hottest stars in all of rap, and a growing roster of talent that included Tweet and Lil’ Mo, Wray’s working relationship with The Goldmind, Inc. began to become strained, with Wray feeling as if cultivating her career was no longer a priority for the label.
With a lack of a release date for Elektric Blue, Wray would cut ties with The Goldmind, Inc. in 2002, returning home to Virginia in an attempt to refresh and pick up the pieces. Retaining a new management team, who set up a meeting with Wray and executives at Roc-A-Fella, the singer would ink a deal with the label, through Def Jam, in 2003, becoming the first female R&B act ever signed to Roc-A-Fella records. The following year, Wray released the single “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” an upbeat selection that caught fire on NYC radio and in clubs while creating a buzz for her forthcoming Roc-A-Fella debut, LoveChild. Biding her time by making appearances on projects from Cam’ron, Young Gunz, and other Roc-A-Fella talent, Wray suffered another setback when Damon Dash, JAY-Z and Kareem “Biggs” Burke decided to part ways, effectively signaling a divide within the Roc-A-Fella family. Opting to roll with Damon Dash as one of the core artists of his Damon Dash Music Group venture, Wray’s revamped sophomore album Kill Cupid would also be shelved amidst Dash’s sabbatical from the music industry, leaving the singer to fend for herself without a record label to properly back her up.
In 2008, Nicole Wray’s luck began to turn around when Dash, who had began to make inroads back into the music world, handpicked her to be a part of BlakRoc, a collaborative album by rock band The Black Keys, spearheaded by Dash and featuring a list of rappers that included Mos Def, Q-Tip, Raekwon, RZA, and Jim Jones, among others.
Wray’s performance on this project opened the door for her to be tapped by The Black Keys themselves to appear on the band’s 2010 album Brothers—on backing vocals for “Everlasting Light,” “Next Girl,” and “Howlin’ For You”—which went on to win three Grammy Awards, further fueling Wray’s comeback from the brink of obscurity. With momentum back on her side, Wray inked a deal with Brooklyn-based Truth & Soul Records, linking up with UK vocalist Terri Walker to form the group Lady, releasing their eponymous debut in 2013. Despite the project receiving positive reviews, Walker’s departure from the group to pursue solo endeavors appeared to be another obstacle in Wray’s career, but proved to be a blessing in disguise, as her decision to carry on the group’s tour dates by herself gave her a chance to showcase her talent as a vocalist and performer, individually. Since the release of Lady and the duo’s breakout, Wray has rebranded herself as Lady Wray, releasing the album Queen Alone on Big Crown Records in 2016. Led by the single “Do It Again,” Queen Alone has received rave reviews and helped put Nicole Wray back on the radar and resulted in a renewed interest in her career as a singer, songwriter and performer.
Wray’s career may not have panned out exactly how she, Missy Elliott, and the fans envisioned back in 1998, but that doesn’t diminish the moment in time that was “Make It Hot,” or her talent, as she has proved to be one of the more unsung vocalists of her time. Sure, platinum plaques and headlining world tours may not have been in the cards for Wray, which makes a number of critics write her off as “the chick that came up under Missy and had a hot song and faded into the abyss.” However, with two decades having passed since her initial star turn, Wray is proof that a career in music, much like life, is a marathon and not a sprint, and it’s not always about how you start, but moreso how you finish, and from the looks of things, the former “one-hit-wonder” is just getting started.
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