By Jaelani Turner-Williams
Following a series of EPs and a decade of YouTube covers, Los Angeles-based R&B singer Joyce Wrice has met the moment. This week marks the release of Wrice’s electrifying debut album, Overgrown, which listens like a metaphor for her personal imperfections, making peace with flawed relationships, and the errant road to stardom.
Still an independent artist, Wrice took the reins of her creative process over the course of quarantine, filming an intimate visual in 2020 for her standalone single “That’s On You,” and remixing the song with fellow African-American and Japanese neo-soul singer UMI. Though Wrice has studied genre-shifting Black women artists like Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, and Sade, her Japanese culture — and a reverence for Buddhism — has reinforced her persistent identity.
“One of the things that I’ve learned through my Buddhist practice is to create opportunities within the obstacle or the struggle. To create value from it, don’t let it define you or sway you, figure out how you can transform it into value,” Wrice told MTV News. “It’s actually helped me to dig deeper and not be swayed by the situation and keep pushing through. Now looking back, I’m like, wow, I did that. I was able to push through. So, what else is there? I’m ready.”
Growing up in San Diego as an only child to a Japanese mother and African-American father from Flint, Michigan, who was briefly stationed in Japan, Wrice was immersed in her mother’s culture as a child. She attended Japanese school for five years, visited Japan annually until she was 18, and later taught English to Japanese-American students in Los Angeles as an adult. Taught to have appreciation for her elders under the guidance of Buddhist principles, Wrice simultaneously learned to master her craft by following a passion for music. “When you really love something, you’re obsessed with it and you want to get good at it,” she said.
Captivated by nostalgic R&B and hip-hop songs of the ‘90s and early 2000s, Wrice took to YouTube while in high school where she would cover Brandy and Janet Jackson and enjoyed positive interactions with viewers who actively commented on her videos. Wrice segued into covering songs by then-budding L.A. rappers Dom Kennedy and Pac Div, who caught wind of her clips and invited her to collaborate. Her first exposure to in-studio songwriting and recording jolted Wrice out of her self-admitted “shyness.”
“With YouTube, you’re just performing to a camera, and I really had to get out of my shy and comfortable place. If I really want to do this, I have to perform live. I have to be in front of people, I have to be vulnerable in these sessions and tell my story,” she said. “It really allowed me to reflect on ‘Who am I? What are my truths? What is my message? What am I trying to say?’ It was me embracing all of me and submitting to the present moment.”
Wrice became a go-to collaborator on songs by male rappers and singers, her delicate, mellifluous vocals creating a duality and providing hooks. On 2018 track “Trouble on Central” by Compton rapper Buddy, Wrice’s voice melts smoothly with Buddy’s laidback flow and the production’s g-funk influence. Elevating rap songs, Wrice’s silky vocals have made her a mainstay by complementing rappers’ verses with ease. Gaining confidence, she became respected in the L.A. beat scene, working alongside SiR, Free Nationals, and Mndsgn. Being the lone woman in circles of men still posed a challenge for Wrice, who would occasionally be underestimated as a “groupie” during studio sessions. Unafraid to lose an opportunity, Wrice ultimately spoke up for herself as uncomfortable situations became recurrent, even when potential collaborators tried to pursue her.
“I care about my values and my integrity. I had to take someone off one of my songs from my album because they disrespected me,” Wrice said. “So many times I’m just like, damn, this sucks. I always have to remind myself that sometimes things don’t work out because something better is there. When I can remind myself of that, I just trust the journey. I’m never going to be a slave to someone who’s only there for their best interest.”
By prioritizing her self-worth, in 2018, Wrice devised a plan for her breakthrough album. Early fans caught glimpses of Wrice’s soulful niche on EPs Stay Around and Good Morning along with intermittent singles, but during a chance meeting with multi-instrumentalist and production extraordinaire D’Mile, Wrice rediscovered her sound.
“I looked him up and I saw that he’s produced some of my favorite records by Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and he worked with Rodney Jerkins,” Wrice said of D’Mile, who later played a central role in executive producing debut albums by R&B vocalists Lucky Daye and Victoria Monét. “He’s so open and knows how to make music that can share the spirit of what you’re feeling — not everyone can do that. Some people will just share with you what they think sounds good, but what I love about D’Mile is that there’s a much deeper connection with the music that you’re creating.”
Sessions with D’Mile became a form of therapy for Wrice. Further pushing her songwriting skills became an outlet for the singer’s self-expression and vulnerability. The singer wanted Overgrown to not only be a testament to communicating her needs in a relationship, but for women listeners to assume control over their self-worth.
“I hope that [women] can know that we have control and it’s not the end of the world if this person does not want to be with us, or they’re not compatible with us,” she said. “I don’t want to compromise my happiness just to please another person. It’s important to speak up, to do it in the most productive and value-creating way possible.”
Although Wrice was used to singing ballads and mid-tempo songs, her manager encouraged her to make upbeat records for an eventual return to music festivals and touring. Wanting to prove her versatility on Overgrown, Wrice tapped producers Kaytranada, Mndsgn, and Devin Morrison for highlight interludes, along with features by fellow vocalists Masego, Lucky Daye, Freddie Gibbs, and Westside Gunn — whom she collaborated with on “French Toast” from 2020 album Pray for Paris.
“I realized that I wanted to make energetic records, I wanted to do records where it’s just me and the piano, I wanted to do interludes that don’t have me involved at all, or interludes that have me involved with a producer that doesn’t sing. [Overgrown] doesn’t have structure. It’s unorthodox to the ‘formula’ of how music should be,” Wrice said. Setting firm boundaries and putting herself first on “Losing,” the production winds down, blending into mellow, guitar-tinged song “You,” where Wrice admits to longing for a wayward lover. The title track, a standout piano ballad, was crafted with singer-songwriter and producer Mack Keane, embodying Wrice’s anxieties in prevailing through her journey as a musician.
“For me, my garden, my emotions, my thoughts, they’re all full of a variety of colorful flowers, but they were being overrun by weeds. My garden was overgrown and it needed tending,” Wrice said. “Tending to that garden has allowed me to blossom, become the best version of myself and share my story.”
- Joyce Wrice