Graded on a Curve:
Lady Wray,
Queen Alone

At 19 years of age in 1998, Nicole Wray hit the scene with a CD and #5 single in connection with hip hop/ R&B sensation Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. After auspicious beginnings a long period of artistic struggle followed, although along the way she added value as a contributor to a variety of projects. In 2012 she teamed up with fellow vocalist Terri Walker and released one LP as Lady, and now her second album Queen Alone hits racks under the sobriquet Lady Wray; loaded with superb neo-soul bedrock and a confident and consistently expressive vocal presence, it’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital September 23 through Big Crown Records.

Like Missy Elliott, Nicole Wray was from Portsmouth, VA, a link that certainly assisted in the creative relationship of the two. However, the biggest factor in the association is Wray’s considerable talent; the story goes that Elliott paid a visit to her home for an on the spot audition and signed Wray to a recording contract immediately afterward.

Indeed, they left Portsmouth together that same night, with Wray soon figuring as a guest on Elliott’s smash Supa Dupa Fly; shortly thereafter she recorded her debut Make It Hot as Nicole. Very much a byproduct of its era and particularly the influence of Elliott, who partially defined the record by contributing to three tracks and leading a gang of production wizards including Timbaland, Make It Hot and its gold-selling title cut nevertheless confirm Wray’s vocal skills as the disc’s less guest-spot studded second half found her personality shining through.

The “I’m Lookin’” single announced the arrival of follow-up Elektric Blue, but it sadly never materialized, and after amicably parting way with Elliott’s label The Goldmind, Wray was without a deal for a few years. Signing with Roc-A-Fella under the auspices of Damon Dash, her “If I Was Your Girlfriend” single gathered some traction as the preamble to the release of LoveChild, but then Roc-A-Fella temporarily halted operations and again her second album was shelved.

Through a continued affiliation with Dash she ended up as part of the Black Keys’ rock/ hip hop excursion Blakroc, and in turn was a prominent contributor to the Keys’ 2010 LP Brothers. This carries us into the vicinity of the Lady collab; the duo’s warm early ’70s-styled soul effectively serves as a doorway into the second act of Wray’s career.

And yet difficulties persisted as Walker left the project prior to tour. Undeterred, Wray promoted it herself and in the process honed the vocal and songwriting ability that’s resulted in the triumphant emergence of Queen Alone, the musical core of Lady returning to help shape an even stronger set of classic R&B/soul.

Lady was released by Truth & Soul, a label co-founded by Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman, with the majority of that imprint’s roster having since transitioned to Michels and Pete Akelepse’s new venture Big Crown. Akin to Truth & Soul, the general focus is on the mingling of crack musicianship and powerful voices, with Michels and Menahan Street Band founding guitarist and Daptone mainstay Thomas Brenneck producing Queen Alone; matters get off to a vibrant start with “It’s Been a Long Time.”

Its sturdy rhythm is accompanied by the sort of bright horn section craftiness that regularly triggers an upward twist of the radio dial, and in an interesting carryover from Lady’s “Waiting On You,” there’s a tasteful application of fuzz guitar. Packing an uplifting punch and communicating the emotional charge that’s been the trademark of soul since its origins, the key to “It’s Been a Long Time”’s success rests upon the performance of Wray, who sings with passion but no detectable strain.

It resonates like an AM radio staple from the neighborhood of 1972, but there is distinctiveness in the uncommonly heavy drum thump and the aforementioned fuzz; things sound fresh if not necessarily contemporary. This is equally true of what sounds like a concert bass drum in “Do It Again,” its thunderous elasticity strengthening the foundation as Wray adjusts to a more conversational approach.

There are exceptions to early ‘70s feel, in particular “Smiling,” which features an appealing dialogue with backing singers, its ’60s-ish vibe enhanced by a brief lyrical nod to The Shirelles’ “Mama Said” and a generous helping of Southern sass; Big Crown has compared Wray to Aretha, and upon consideration that’s not off-target.

“Mama Said” also wields a sweet churchy coda followed by the positively slamming beat and rich vocal interplay of standout “Guilty,” the track comfortably falling into the tradition of “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got”-styled highway cruising killers. Next, the acoustic strum of the succinct “In Love (Don’t Mess Things Up)” is organic, stripped-down R&B with an engaging Jackson 5-ish flair courtesy of Wray’s voice. The restrained use of vibraphone is a nice touch, with the instrument sticking around for the more slowly paced intensity of “Make Me Over.”

It’s the sort of number frequently enhanced with string-based lushness, an impulse that likely would’ve worked in this instance. But as Michels and Brenneck (who play multiple instruments here) and band match Wray’s range, they keep matters cohesive, the LP connecting as a proper album rather than just a batch of good ideas. And tidy; at 2:24 “Make Me Over” gets right to the point without a trace of padding.

Neo-soul’s main potential weakness is to become a trope of readymade authenticity, but “Cut Me Loose” is a prime example of the format’s expanded possibilities, the tune unwinding without recalling any prior era. Wray’s singing does continue to launch from a general classique platform, but without a tangible limitation; “Underneath My Feet” merges a blues-tinged instrumental base with her increase in swagger at the microphone.

“They Won’t Hang Around” thrives on a multifaceted rhythm, both huge and supple, plus smart piano and organ accents and a voice combining the verve of a belter and the finesse of a balladeer. From there, “Bad Girl” twines another joyous horn-rich template with Wray’s playful lyrical desire to pursue a less virtuous path, and “Let It Go” ends the LP with aplomb, starting out up-tempo and then shrewdly bringing it down for a deep groove and a slow fadeout.

The set’s good first impression rises upon repeated listens, and those who appreciated Nicole Willis’ album from last year will find a kindred spirit in Lady Wray’s Queen Alone.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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