Wise ones once professed, “A Jill of many trades `tis a master of none.” Said philosophers never met Nicki Richards – most extraordinary and highly favored Spin Sorceress Supreme… Her Majesty of the Musical Moon and Stars… aboard her Stone Soul Spaceship. Planet-hopping genres with panache and purpose, the wizardress waxes thoughtful and deep, fun and flirtatious, spiritual yet seductive, constantly tested yet steadfastly faithful. Nicki is never at a loss for a song. The latest luscious fruit of her inspiration is Bedtime Story (Tell Me) – Nicki’s third album and the second via her own Hydrus Music company following 2008’s Nicki.
The most important thing to know about Nicki Richards – The Musician – is that she records luxuriantly expansive modern soul music. And when you drop the metaphorical needle on said record, OVERSTAND that this lady composed, produced, arranged, played and SANG (leads and layered backgrounds) 80% of every note you hear…then custom-casted the remaining 20% with a talented rainbow of friends – from jazz legends Randy Brecker, Christian McBride and Lenny White to vocal virtuosos Take 6, Trey Lorenz, Lisa Fischer, Tawatha Agee, Fonzi Thornton and Vaneese Thomas to dance club tastemakers Tony Moran, Parrish James, Josh Harris and DJ Inferno.
The most important thing to know about Nicki Richards – The Woman – is that she is all about The Love. For the enticingly titled Bedtime Story (Tell Me), she takes a skin dive under the covers to explore what a woman dreams when imagining The Love of a Lifetime.
“My original title was A Wish, A Dream…,” she shares. “I started thinking about the ideal relationship – ‘when things are on-and-poppin’, what does that feel like’ – in hopes of manifesting something better than what I had. It began to feel like a wonderful concept for an album…then the songs just started flowing.”
The album opens with “Queen,” as easily every woman’s theme as Nicki’s own “womanifesto.” Violins & cellos dance a courtship minuet as Nicki lays out a regal affirmation and the conditions a prospective king must meet to stand by her side.
“Oh, but you must be sure
You must understand all I endure
All the lonely nights of conquering
How I need someone to handle me
And treat me like the queen I am
And love me as I command”
“I was just vibing off the grand films of Sofia Coppola, Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, and got carried away to another time,” she states on behalf of the song’s inspiration. “All of these characters led such intense lives. Queen Elizabeth was a serious conqueror…but she was so lonely. Or Marie Antoinette having everything but still being so alone. Many women feel this. Well, like many in my culture, I was raised to be an African American queen – and I deserve to have it all.”
On cue arrives “Knight in Shining Armor,” an older song of Nicki’s that’s time arrived as the perfect answer to “Queen.” Drenched in the aural luxuriance of Nicki’s lushly layered vocals and a musical Hejaz fantasia of literature’s classic “Scheherazade” and “1001 Arabian Nights,” it represents a space and time that Nicki loves to visit when sizing up the hero of her dragon-slayer dreams.
With rave anthem written all over it, the album’s first single “Lay Your Hands On Me” dually conjures the sensual and the spiritual – imageries of surrender and healing as our heroine dances upon a cloud, Heaven-bound. “I’m more a spiritual person than religious,” Nicki confesses, “but I found myself turning to the Bible more than once while making this record. I was re-reading stories about Mary Magdalene, and the woman that touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed forever. That feeling is what this song is really about.”
On the other hand, “Kiss Kiss Kiss” – destined to be the international all-points pop breakthrough that Nicki has long deserved – is all about the union of lips as euphoric overture to romantic symphonies of endless movements and variations. “‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ came out of a relationship I was in that was hot and heavy,” she swoons. “I was also reminded of first love…first kisses…how that feels in the pit of your stomach and wanting to revisit that feeling…again and again.” Nicki sings AND raps on this irresistible ode to lovers’ favorite pastime that will take its place at the chart top alongside Rihanna and Beyonce’ hits. “Kiss on this…”
Back in Dance Land, Nicki teams with singer Trey Lorenz – her sidekick from many tours singing backup for Mariah Carey – on “We Got Each Other,” a joy-filled high stepper she co-wrote with Everett Bradley as a tribute to her younger brother, Philip, and their ever-strengthening bond of sibling-ship: “I’m so glad there’s a you in my life…” Interpolating a hook from an album cut classic that Chaka Khan and her little brother Mark Stevens co-wrote and sang called “We Got Each Other” (from Khan’s LP What `Cha Gonna Do For Me – 1981), Nicki and company, are having an audible ball. “We were acting a fool in the studio playing follow the leader,” Nicki signifies, “so effortless! We laughed more than we sang.”
The album centerpiece is “Tell Me…”, a soundscape out of the sweetest of dreams… It finds Nicki weaving spark and homage in her honorable wedding of a lyric to the timeless melody of jazz piano chameleon Herbie Hancock’s 1969 chestnut, “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” What was written decades ago by Hancock as score music for Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” Saturday cartoon is interpreted here as the grown-up dreams of a woman still very much in touch with the dreaming child inside her. “Like ‘Parallel Universe’ on my last album, I was thinking, ‘What would I like to feel in my perfect universe?’ Those chord changes and that melody were exactly what I wanted to hear. Then I thought, ‘Now how can I get more of me in there, R&B style?’” What Nicki created in her otherworldly melding of keyboard and synthesizer textures feels like the surround sound comforter of the spheres… Hancock will be moved. “My favorite part of the arrangement is the song just grooving along when – all of a sudden – the bottom drops out, you’re freefalling then Randy Brecker takes over playing all that beautiful Flugelhorn… with all of this space around him. I felt pretty bold doing that – just caressing him with ambient keyboard sound. Then at the ending fade into the ‘la-la’ children’s round with the music box melody…that’s what my dreams sound like.”
“Tell Me…” pours like warm massage oil into “Sunday Morning,” an evocative lyric reflecting fleeting indulgences of intimacy. Ever imagined what an encounter between Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Miles Davis and Ron Carter might sound like? Your wish is Richards’ command, featuring an encore from Brecker (this time on muted trumpet), the seamless tandem coloring of percussionist Bashiri Johnson and drummer Lenny White, the ubiquitous Christian McBride plucking playfully mesmerizing upright bass, and Nicki accompanying the serene ache of her singing at the piano.
“Kiss me ‘til I’m breathless
Flood each of my senses
Evening dare not end this
Men will melt at the next pair of songs – sentiments that lift them high enough to kiss the sky. First is the smoldering funk of “Precious” featuring Nicki tapping into some Bobby Debarge-inspired falsetto crooning, some tangy blues guitar from Robin Macatangay and a wicked second verse couplet:
“Wrapped up in our sheets
How I love the way we move
You’re digging into me
Like the rarest vinyl groove”
This is followed by the more 360-degree love praise of “Extraordinary,” a number that packs a powerful punch as it builds to a soulful and brassy finish worthy of a Broadway finale. The Chops Horns quartet (arranged by Nicki with member Daryl Dixon) sees to that. And like that arrangement, “Extraordinary” began life as a seed that took on a growth spurt all of its own. “I originally wrote it as a contemporary jazz instrumental,” Nicki reveals, “a ballad with a vocal hook for a keyboardist I was working with. I fleshed out all that wistful Sly Stone-styled piano with some horns I dreamt up thinking of Earth Wind & Fire. The song is my way of honoring exceptional men in my life – from friendships and relationships.”
“Extraordinary” comes back in the sexier ‘slight return’ of “Extra 02 (interlude)” … later.
Now you KNOW there had to be some funk up in here and Nicki drops it on ya HOT with a song about her trusty 12-seater heater of a “Spaceship.” A Holidelic Galaxian from way back, Commander Richards pilots only the hippest, horns-driven, Don Cornelius-approved, in-flight throw-downs – fueled by Sherrod Barnes’ searing, high-octane guitar and Artie Reynolds humpin’ on That Bass. “That groove goes back to my teens,” Nicki declares, referencing its original coordinates. “I used to sing it under a different song. My brother Philip recognized it and called me on it. It’s since spiraled into a whole new thang!”
After an excursion of such Uncut Funk propulsion – taking err’body to The Bridge and dropping them off safe in sound “On The One” – Her Majesty could have but one Final Destination for the one worthy passenger that remains – The
Motherland. All the delicious extended foreplay leads to the carnal culmination of “Hungry.” “Imagine a woman’s body as the continent of Africa,” she suggests with a now-quiet intensity. “She’s in love…desirous…and long in need of release. Time to make the rain pour down…” As David Mann’s wanton tenor parts the waves then Lisa Fischer’s and Greg Clark’s voices mist the earthen bed, Nicki ascends the ladder of passion with a rivetingly modulated vocal, topped with the tangiest cherry of a spoken word breakdown.
“My skin hungers for your skin
Hungers to feel your touch
I can’t get close enough
(So) Hungry for your love…”
There’s nowhere left to ascend except to higher philosophical plains as Nicki plumbs her inner Al Green & Gandhi to impart a message about how progress on this troubled planet can be achieved once we become the “Change in the World.” Joined by the formidable Amen corner of Tawatha Agee, Vaneese Thomas and Fonzi Thornton, Nicki hammers her point home with Isisian Thunder:
“Don’t let the pills and the lies
Keep people falling asleep
And when the system is wrong
Stand up! Say what you believe
We’ve got to open our eyes
Don’t let corruption dictate
Tear the roof off the truth
Love is stronger….
Love is stronger than anything”
“Surely” – the final song on Bedtime Story (Tell Me) – stands alone as a deeply personal piece representing The Light that pulled Nicki from a seemingly ceaseless night during a heavy period of grieving. Between her 2008 CD Nicki and this one, Richards lost several friends and musical associates, her Grandfather, her Aunt… and her Father. “I wrote ‘Surely’ for my grandfather who passed around the same time as Michael Jackson,” she says softly. “I was sad I couldn’t go to his funeral because I was on the road. I was in Israel…standing at the Wailing Wall just crying thinking about him and all of the people I’d lost. I started reciting Psalm 23 as a comfort. I later read other Psalms in the Bible and found phrases that were inspiring – of people trying to hold on to their faith. I lifted those thoughts and strung them together into ‘Surely.’”
“Surely” features a brilliant signature vocal performance from very special guest ensemble Take 6, and a robust overdubbing of hand drumming and percussion by Everett Bradley. The song provided her a chance to stretch her vocal arranging skills. “Take 6 recorded their parts at their studio in Nashville. I sent them my vocal sketch then Mark Kibble arranged it to the nth degree! I’m proud of my basic framework – I wrote it with them in mind, voicing the chords in their style. I sent my demo with a note that read, ‘Don’t laugh at my rough T6 ideas, now!’ I’m sure Mark got a good laugh out of that. Everett is playing all kinds of crazy percussion and I have a loop in there, too. I wanted the track to have an arranged feel over a tribal feel. There’s beauty and faith in there but also some darkness – mostly in the bass. My people are from New Orleans where there’s always a hint of danger. I had to have a pinch of that…amidst all the glory.”