There is something about the marriage of hip-hop and R&B that feels like sun on your skin. And after over a year of lockdown, we could use some more sunshine.
In 1995, Mariah Carey created a new standard when she invited Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard to remix “Fantasy." In addition to laying the groundwork for a slew of unlikely cross-over collaborations, including Fabolous and Tamia’s “So Into You," “Fantasy” gave birth to a sound—equal parts street, soulful, and brimming with commercial appeal. Nearly a decade later, that union of hip-hop and R&B was producing songs like Amerie's “Why Don’t We Fall In Love," a song that still feels like summer almost 20 years later. It didn’t feature a rapper, but the bass-heavy production felt more suited to a rap song than a ballad.
Like many of us, Los Angeles-based singer and songwriter Joyce Wrice grew up in the intersection of those worlds with Carey, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah on regular rotation on the radio. Out today, her debut album Overgrown is a refreshing offering of the sort of 2000s nostalgia that people seem to be craving again—a time when rappers didn’t sound like singers and singers didn’t sound like rappers. Except Wrice isn’t dabbling in the bedazzled, low-rise aesthetic as cosplay; she’s making it her own, joining Lucky Daye, Snoh Aalegra, and Victoria Monét in reinventing the sound with original instrumentation and contemporary themes.
“Sometimes, I feel like everything is really sample-based and just pulling from the past,” Wrice tells me over the phone, a week ahead of the release of her debut. “It’s really beautiful when we can still make it contemporary.” As much as Wrice’s sound can be credited to her muses, it can also be traced to her roots as a musician: Before she released her first EP, Stay Around, in 2016, she matriculated through Los Angeles’ hip-hop scene by hopping on hooks for rappers like Dom Kennedy and Jay Prince.
Weary of getting stuck as a session musician, she took the time to consider how she wanted to present herself to the world. Five years later, Wrice is still singing alongside rappers, but has prioritized centering her stories instead.
As its title suggests, Overgrown is all about growing pains. She is wise enough to know she deserves better on “Chandler,” an opener with a funky bassline, and honest enough to admit she was “dickmatized” on the bluesy “Addicted.” It's a sonic journey through womanhood— one not only experienced through Wrice’s voice, but given fuller context through the addition of male perspectives from collaborators like Westside Gunn and Freddie Gibbs.
“With this being my debut album and an introduction, or a reintroduction, of Joyce Wrice to everyone, I had to show that these are the types of collaborations that you’re going to see me do,” she says. “I’m a fan of these artists, too. I wanted them to be a part of the world I’m creating.”
Musically and thematically, Overgrown is a testament to the art of balance. It is as much about the softness of R&B against rap’s ruggedness, as it is about Wrice finding her footing as a person—one who is able to be flirtatious while also being coy. For Wrice, there is strength in being delicate.
Wrice likens the world she's created with Overgrown to a garden. For almost two years, she collected moments of heartbreak and insecurity, using songwriting as a way to prune the pieces that were too damaged to grow. “When I was really struggling before I wrote this album, I felt like my garden was being overrun by weeds,” she says. “Through working on this album and using these sessions as therapy, I was able to tend to that garden.”
It isn't a garden that was cultivated overnight. You could say the first seed was planted when she listened to Tamia’s self-titled debut during car rides with her father as a child. By high school, she started gaining a following on YouTube for her ukulele-assisted covers of artists like Brandy, Tyrese, and Aaliyah. After graduating from a liberal arts college in Orange County, she moved to LA to try to make it in music—despite skepticism from her parents, who wanted her to pursue a career with more stability.
“I was raised Buddhist, and one of the things I was taught is that you want to live a life with no regrets, and you want to dream big,” she says. “You want to look back on your life and not have should’ve, would’ve, could’ves. I was like, I’m going to do it.” In 2015, she released “TRIBUTE TO BABYGURL” and “DeVante Swing,” reworkings of 90s classics she'd been recording at home on SoundCloud. By the following year, she was gearing up to release Stay Around, with the help of producer Mndsgn and another LA singer/songwriter: SiR.
“SiR really helped me get my perspective and point of view,” she says. “He helped me write in a way that could be visual for people versus just being literal.” At the time, Wrice was fresh out of a long distance relationship and decided to put the pain she was feeling in her EP. “I was shattered when we broke up. I was kind of traumatized—I even went to therapy for six months because I didn’t know how to get myself together.”
She dated less and worked more, a solution she thought would help but didn’t give her the results she was looking for. “I realized I wasn’t enjoying what I was making because I was always working. So I started meeting new people and taking risks—getting comfortable in the uncomfortable. Those experiences helped me become a woman.”
In 2018, she started working with Mary J. Blige’s A&R, Eddie Fourcell, who later introduced her to producer Dernst “D’Mile” Emile, who would eventually sign on as Overgrown's executive producer.
For her debut album, Wrice wanted to capture the energy of the late 90s and 2000s, with uptempo records she could perform at festivals. Her working relationship with D’Mile resembled one more like a counselor, where they tailored the tracks to reflect her experiences. “We were able to have dialogue about what was going on in my life and who I am,” she says. “Him creating that safe space and interest made me feel comfortable to open up and tell him what was going on in my life. I don’t have that kind of relationship with other producers, and I think that’s what makes him special.”
With D’Mile on board, Overgrown was shaping up to be a mixed bag of nostalgic R&B that was also forward-thinking. Singles like “On One,” featuring Freddie Gibbs, was inspired by the guitar chords of Brandy’s “Best Friend,” and “So So Sick,”’s hook even interpolates Floetry’s 2002 hit “Say Yes.” Elsewhere, songs like “Falling in Love,” which originally appeared on Lucky Daye’s duet EP Table for Two, show that she’s mastered the art of collaboration. Not only does she know how to create space for the rapper’s on her songs, but she is skilled at connecting with her fellow crooners.
She met Daye almost two years ago, before his Painted success, through Fourcell. “Lucky and Davion Farris [SiR’s brother] wrote this song for Mary J. Blige, but she passed on it, so my A&R asked me if I wanted it,” she says. She wrote a second verse for the song, and after some slight tweaks from Daye, they decided it would go on her album—though, at the last minute, he also decided to add it to last month’s Table for Two. The result is a song that feels like it belongs to both of them, with the two harmonizing seamlessly as if they’re singing into the same mic—although Wrice reveals they never recorded it together physically.
The other nostalgic element of Overgrown is its interludes, which uses a freestyle from Westside Gunn and storytelling from Kaytranada to help move the project along. “I grew up listening to albums with interludes,” she says. “There’s a Missy’s album with Busta Rhymes, and she’s not on it at all, but she made the beat. I used interludes because I want to showcase people I admire and people who inspire me. They’re my community and who I love listening to, but I also want to tell other people’s stories.”
“Westside Gunn’s Interlude” stands out for the Griselda Records rapper’s raunchy freestyle, which represents a stark departure from how polished Wrice is on the album. “There’s only one pussy I want to eat, and that’s yours,” he raps at the start of the track. According to Wrice, his original version was “a little too much.” When I ask if it was more explicit than what’s currently on the album, she confirms that while laughing: “The first line was, “Come here, bitch,” so I had to cut shit out and piece it together to make the interlude what it is now.” The final product, however lightly edited, adds to that tapestry of street meets soul.
While most of Overgrown journeys through relationships, its slow-going, intimate title track grapples with Wrice’s most important one: the relationship she has with herself. For what the ballad lacks in tempo, it makes up for in its introspective lyrics, which she sings over a stripped down piano arrangement: “Don’t you lose all that makes you you/You will be scared, unprepared, sometimes.”
Wrice says her candor on the track is two fold: She wanted to write a song she could perform at Buddhist meetings, but it was also something she felt that she owed to her fanbase. “It’s taken me a while to work on this album," she says. "I wanted to share my anxieties and insecurities so it could give people context on why it might have taken me this long."
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.