As the first artist to be released on Missy Elliott’s new The Gold Mind, Inc./Eastwest, label, you might think Nicole Wray is beginning to feel a little pressure. Not so says the just-turned 18 year old singer/rapper. “I grew up around Missy,” she says. She’s been working with me for a couple of years now. “The way I look at it is I had a pretty good head start. ” And if ” Make It Hot”, her sultry debut single is any indication of what’s to come, the determined Nicole is going to make her mentor very proud.

Born in Salinas, California , the young prodigy moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, Missy’s neighborhood before her teens. “I always wanted to act and sing,” she recalls. My mother would encourage me to sing in the church choir. “I remember when I first went I was a little nervous. Then the director asked if anyone had a song they’d like to sing. I practiced all week long. The next Sunday I got up and sang my heart out. From then I knew singing was the road I’d choose.”

Nicole also modeled and performed in talent contests for a while, but eventually her path would cross Missy’s. At the time, the groundbreaking hip hop star was still in the planning stages of her own solo career when she discovered the abundantly talented Nicole. Missy knew from the outset that the young singer had the potential to be a multi-dimensinal performer. “My cousin introduced her to me,” says Missy. “I went to her home to hear her sing. I knew automatically that she had a different kind of voice. Very versatile for her age. She came on with this little Mary feel (a reference to superstar Mary J. Blige), but it was like back to the old Mary when she first came up.”

Nicole displays that versatility at full tilt on her debut album, with sizzling tracks like “Make It Hot”, “Raise Your Frown”, and “Curiosity”. “I really love “Curiosity”, says Missy. It’s one where Nicole shines on all levels. That Mary in her really comes out.” When asked if the dual role of rhyming and singing makes the recording process any more difficult, Nicole just shrugs. “I think Missy has shown in her own career if the song fits it, then do it, she says. I really love singing the most, though. But my influences run deep. I like everything from Patti Labelle to Wu Tang.”

The song, “Make It Hot”, was written by Missy and produced by her longtime collaborator Timbaland. The duo, as usual, makes sure the music is hitting on all cylinders. Missy also appears in the video for “Make It Hot”, with a lot of other superstar guests, including Aaliyah, Timbaland, Playa, Ginuwine and Mocha. “We had these people turning into mannequins and stuff,” laughs Nicole, trying to describe the video.

The clips strange plot. It’s clear from the tone of the album and Nicole’s genuine disposition that she’s putting a slight flip to the bad girl image that has invaded a lot of hip hop recently. “Make It Hot” gets your blood going, but I can do a lot of things, acting, singing, modeling,” she says. “I want to come at people as a whole person. I’m just glad Missy gave me the opportunity to show what I can do.” Managed by her mother, Nicole also remembers to cite another big influence in her career. “My parents have always stressed to get that education no matter how far up I go,” she smiles. “I realize that when I was younger I could have put even more effort into school, the way I did with singing and dancing.”

Missy laughs in approval at Nicole’s earnestness. “She’s such an accomplished singer and rapper, sometimes I forget shes still a teenager,” she says. “After we’d record she couldn’t wait to go out and get with her friends, and you know…talk and hang…what makes her so real is shes just as anxious to keep up on what it is teenagers do.”

It’s that same joy and ease that Nicole brings to – what looks like – the beginning of a wonderful career.

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