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R&B singer Lady Wray pushes beyond the limits of teenage fame

The artist headlines the Black Cat on Friday

Nicole (Lady) Wray got her start when she was signed to Missy Elliott’s label at age 15. (Maris Jones)

Even before she was grown, stardom seemed like destiny for Nicole Wray. She was a 15-year-old standout in a Portsmouth, Va., church choir when hip-hop legend Missy Elliott, who grew up in the same town, heard of Wray’s talent. Elliott showed up at Wray’s mother’s home, asked the teenager for an impromptu audition and signed Wray on the spot. In 1998, Wray released a debut solo album; a single went gold.

But that first taste of success came before Wray really knew who she was, never mind what she really wanted to sing or how she wanted to sing it. She was raw talent, subject to the whims of an industry eager to shape her.

She spent much of her early career as a background vocalist for Elliott’s projects and lending her voice to prominent artists’ tracks. Wray wouldn’t start writing and releasing her own music until her 2016 album “Queen Alone,” a title that pointed toward her growth as an artist beyond her teenage fame, after several starts and stops at other labels. She adopted the name Lady Wray.

“I always wanted to be a songwriter,” says Wray, who is playing the Black Cat on Friday. “I just didn’t know what it took until I started living and kind of getting outside of the artist thing and started being a real person.”

Wray says her songwriting is strengthened by her trials in and out of the industry; her goal now is to create a soundtrack to her own healing process. Take the lyrical vulnerability that floats above the chunky bass of her 2019 release “Piece of Me,” the title track to her 2022 LP: “I’ll let you take a piece of me / I hope you get the peace you need / And if that’s not enough, I’ll let you go peacefully.”

It’s fun wordplay with a percipient message, but fans might be further impressed to know she wrote and recorded the song extemporaneously in a single take, sitting in a studio chair while eight months pregnant. Now a wife and mother, Wray says her transition into life’s next steps has also sharpened her writing in ways that make her more relatable than she seemed in pre-written tracks. And on an album that hints at the R&B energy of her early career and the gospel influences of her youthful days in the church choir, it feels like a full-circle moment.

This makes Wray’s most personal touches feel universally endearing. On “Melody,” a song named for her daughter, guitar chords twinkle like a lullaby under Wray’s sweet voice: “All of this joy, it matters more than fear.” Her daughter’s 4-year-old babble responds: “Mom, is that a star?” In her newest releases, Wray seems to have answered her question.

Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. blackcatdc.com. $20.

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