If you feel like R&B is in a slump, then you're ready for the return of Nicci Gilbert. A graduate of the mid-nineties trio Brownstone, Nicci has taken her sexy style and sultry sound and wrapped it around honest lyrics about love and relationships on her solo debut, Grown Folks Music. Her influences of Phyllis Hyman, Chaka Khan and Donny Hathaway are evident in the searing vocal performances she delivers on Grown Folks Music.
"Music and singing for me is so much more about passion," says Nicci. "And that is not something to say because it sounds good. It feels better to me when I think about singing from an emotional perspective versus making sure that I am [technically] doing this right." Nicci made sure she did no wrong on her new album, co-writing and co-producing most of the tracks.
Before she executive produced her solo debut or even before she rose to the highest of heights with Brownstone, Nicci spent her formative years in the musical city of Detroit. "It was a lot of sitting on the front porch with my sisters listening to the radio, watching people breakdance, playing kickball in the middle of the street-just the normal, Midwestern, seven steps from the ghetto life," says Nicci of her childhood. But what was different about her upbringing was that, as the child of a single mother who was a touring jazz singer and an often absent father who was a Motown staff writer, she was constantly surrounded by music as a kid.
Nicci always knew she would perform, but she felt she was a little eccentric-and her high school classmates agreed. "I sang "Crazy For You" by Madonna [in a talent show]. I was in an inner city school so nobody was really into the music. I went out on stage they started to boo me because they weren't familiar with the song. But by the time I got to the hook they were like 'wait a minute, she can blow' and I got a standing ovation," says Nicci, who got her first taste of fame when she won first place in that talent show.
After stints in her high school's honors chorus group, band, drama club and orchestra, Nicci was off to Eastern Michigan University on music and drama scholarships. But fame was calling her name and she had to answer-immediately. She and a friend, inspired by the "Carpe Diem" theme of the film Dead Poets Society, left college after two years and headed for La La land. "We took our financial aid money and flew to LA. Didn't know a soul," recalls Nicci. "My mother had a fit. We went out there, got an apartment and hustled up for years and years."
Those years had Nicci working jobs everywhere from Taco Bell to department stores, while trying to get into the business in local talent shows, hoping to catch the eye of someone that could put her on. She got some celebrity encouragement after one of those performances. "It was three o'clock in the morning, we were waiting at the bus stop and Damon Wayans drove by us in his limousine" she says. "He rolled down his window and he said 'All I have to say to you is that you're going to go somewhere. You're going to be big. Keep the hustle. Keep the grind. Something is going to happen for you.'"
- more -
Nicci made that something happen for herself when she put an ad in a few Los Angeles music magazines in early 1994 saying she wanted start a group. She ended up with the members of Brownstone, who got their deal with Epic Records by performing for the King of Pop. "We didn't know he was going to be there. It never registered to any of us. We had lights in our faces. We were more interested in singing our hearts out to try to get this deal. Later we were told it was Michael Jackson," remembers Nicci. "Afterwards we were on our knees praying every single solitary night that we would get the deal."
A week later they were signed to Epic and went on to much success with two albums, Still Climbing and From the Bottom Up, which included their mega-hit "If You Love Me." Wanting to pursue separate interests, the group split up in 1997 and Nicci lived out one of her childhood dreams, to become an actress, with roles on "Living Single," "Sister, Sister," "Martin" and in the film Woo. She also started a management company, Charmed Entertainment, under which she manages artists and producers. "I'm trying to be Sylvia Rhone, Whitney Houston and Halle Berry all at the same time," says Nicci of her various endeavors. But her first love is singing. "I sing because it is a part of who I am. Its in my blood, running through my veins," says Nicci. "I do this and I will be doing this because I love to do it."
Her love comes through on Grown Folks Music, an album she describes as "straight-up old school Midwest R&B." Most of the album is derived from what she says are the high and low experiences including relationship drama that she went through while she was on hiatus. She puts her own spin on romance in songs like the let's get down to the nitty-gritty tracks "I Got It Bad" and "Hint of Love." And when she's over you she's over you - as exemplified on the keep-it-moving-brother songs "Woman In Need" and "Think Again."
But Nicci doesn't take herself too seriously either. She gets her party on the club jumpers "Hot Spot" and "Headlights" and the head nodding, two-step inspiring "I Can't Forget." The hardest song to write she says was the Dave Hollister-collaboration "She'll Never Love You," because it was based on a real life situation and recounts her fight "between being honest and saving face, like not putting myself out there," she says. "It came off a lot better with me putting myself out there."
She gives more of her all on what she says is her favorite track, "Woman In Need," a slow-dragger that deals with the theme of "when a woman is through, ain't nothing you can do but walk a mile in her shoes," says Nicci. "It's an anthem for sisters. I'm feeling very good about my sisters right now."
In August 2004 Nicci,was blessed with the opportunity to
portray "Vera Brown" in "Tyler Perry's national hit stage
play production "Meet The Browns" which has continued to
sell out around the country.
With the material on Grown Folks Music, there is no doubt that the affect Nicci will have on people will be so tremendous, that if you're not ready, you better get ready. Because Nicci Gilbert is back and she ain't playing.