Let's say you were an artistic and ambitious seventeen-year-old, singing in your church choir by day and dreaming of a rapping career by night. If a mad genius/fairy godmother by the name of Missy Elliott came knocking on your door, what would you do? Letting her coproduce and cowrite your first album sounds like a great career move -- but as Nicole, the latest one-named teenage addition to the R&B scene, finds out on Make It Hot, there's a definite downside to working with genius. Anyone within hearing distance of MTV or a car radio in the past year knows who Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott is - the multi- talented singer, rapper, and songwriter who manages to make a trash bag look cool. The artists lining up to work with rap's stylistic mistress should realize, though, that it takes both consummate craft and a diva-ish sense of self to avoid getting sucked under the smooth, lazily freaky pull of Elliott's signature beats. When an act can match her in style and attitude, as SWV did in last year's silky, kinky hit, "Can We", the payoff is mind-blowing. When the talent is inexperienced or simply inferior - as in Missy's other collaboration this season, a weird if-you-wannabe-a-cowgirl duet with Melanie B, better known as Scary Spice - the result is ambiguous and unsatisfying. And too often on Make It Hot, Nicole aims for a contemporary, adult edge but ends up being as authentic and innovative as pre-fabricated Girl Power. Nicole has a strong, well-trained voice and a wide range, which should be an asset but works against her most of the time. The most annoying thing about Make It Hot is Nicole's mild case of Mariah Carey Syndrome - the insatiable desire to show off your skills regardless of the song. As a result, songs that could be powerful are technically impressive - damn, the girl can sing low! - but just feel flat. For example, on "Boy You Should Listen" and its prelude "Pressure", what should have been a sassy rendition of a woman declaring her independence ("You'll know when I'm ready/Trust me, you'll know") comes off like a pro- abstinence public service commercial, because Nicole is more concerned with hitting her note than the emotional context of the song. Worse yet, on several tracks she gets so caught up in trilling and sliding that the lyrics become incomphrensible. Another problem with Make It Hot is its pacing. People expecting a dance album will be disappointed; for the most part, Nicole seems too cool to really groove. In particular, the second half of the CD is almost entirely quiet-storm, with neither Nicole or the underlying rhythms rising to any sort of climax or crescendo, which makes for serviceable but fairly boring R&B. Only the song "Borrowed Time" raises the tempo slightly, as Nicole growls and coos over a languid beat. Make It Hot has its odd charms, though, in spite of the vocal inconsistencies and slow pace. Without a question, the best cut is the title track and first single. "Make It Hot" is an infectious low-ride of a song practically designed to blare from open car windows. The harmonies are silky smooth, the refrain is catchy as hell, and Missy's guest rap is a head-nodding delight. Still, Nicole herself seems curiously absent from the song - you wind up singing along with the backup singers instead. Ultimately, it's tempting to blame some of the album's inconsistencies on Nicole's age - seventeen seems awfully young, after all, to produce a cohesive creative sound, let alone make it your own - until you hear the other options out there. 18-year-old Brandy, 19-year-old Aaliyah (who contributed backup vocals for the title track), and 18-year-old Mya have all recently released musically mature offerings that combine immaculate production values with genuine emotional depth. For these women, age truly is nothing but a number.
This article originally appeared in the Paisano 9/1/98.
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