Age ain't nothing but a number - if the talent's there

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 

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.  
All rights reserved.

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