It was producer Sam Hollander's idea: Nikki Jean would reach out to her musical idols and ask them to write a song with her. Jean was game. She'd prized songwriters over singers since childhood, growing up in Minnesota. When 12 veritable legends agreed to collaborate, she hopped in the car and drove out to meet them.
The result is Pennies in a Jar, a lush record that makes you ache for times gone by as much as it turns your gaze toward the horizon. And its list of co-stars is impressive: Bob Dylan, Lamont Dozier, Bobby Braddock, Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon, Carole King — their sounds all bridged by Jean's voice.
Bridges are sort of her thing.
A biracial singer-songwriter with hip-hop ties, she rocks a homegrown-meets-glam style. Her ability to connect across aesthetics is what brought her to Philly in 2005, when Dice Raw, an MC frequently seen on stage with the Roots, invited her to form the rap/rock hybrid Nouveau Riche. She's lived here ever since. (In fact, she and Dice appeared on the cover of a City Paper Music Issue back in 2006.)
"Anytime I do something that's hip-hop-influenced, I draw a lot from Philly," says Jean, a late addition to this weekend's Popped! roster. Dice and The Roots Crew preached high lyrical standards from the get-go. "It really pushed me as a lyricist because I was in the room with lyricists every day, and I really wanted to represent, and show that I could write well."
Her first big breakthrough came in 2008, when she contributed to "Hip Hop Saved My Life," a single on Lupe Fiasco's The Cool. She went on to join Lupe, Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Kanye on the Glow in the Dark Tour that spring. That summer, Nouveau Riche dropped its final EP and disbanded, but before the year was over, Pennies was beginning to take shape.
"These writers that I got a chance to work with — they're magical. They're wonderful. It's like Alice in Wonderland, and Disneyworld and Six Flags all in one," she raves. "If I came there with my own agenda, I was going to miss out on the opportunity of receiving whatever it is they had to give. Like, I can write songs by myself every day ... I can only write a song with Jimmy Webb once."
When she wasn't refining her work with pop deities, Jean spent her time making cookies, cakes and comfort food. Even with the stacked list of collaborators, Columbia wasn't sold on the album's appeal. Fortunately, New York label S-Curve got on board, and she launched an online cookie store to support herself until Pennies finally dropped.
The album wound up as quintessentially American as her culinary tastes and, chances are, Pennies will be her most eclectic work. Jean's not keen on tackling so many genres again. "I'll always write all different types of songs because that's just who I am. Whether I'll be able to put all those songs on an album again remains to be seen," she says. "People want things to go together. ... When they get a rap album, they want it to be rap music; when they get a country album, they want it be country music. I am not trying to re-create the wheel."
Jean's already got another album in the works, which she hopes to release in the next two years, and a bigger multimedia project she's staying tight-lipped on for now. The project already has a name. She's got the blueprint; she's just waiting to build.
"I have a larger vision that involves a story," she says carefully. "I'm not ready to unveil."
Nikki Jean plays the Popped! Music Festival on Saturday.