The Camel is packed to the gills with a full band on stage as big, brass-colored foil balloons spelling out "May Day" float over top. Cole Hicks, aka Nicole Hicks, finishes a verse and wipes the sweat off her forehead.
"When you love what you do, when your eyes burn, you close 'em and keep rapping," she says. Before long she slides into the hypnotic "Drip" as the crowd shouts the song's title between beats.
Born and raised in South Side's Blackwell neighborhood, Hicks, 30, has a masterful flow, fast-paced twang and attitude. She first achieved success over the local airwaves when she was only a tween and now she's turning heads with her first big release, "May Day," available online.
Marc Cheatham, host of the Cheats Movement podcast, calls her one of the most exciting MCs he's seen come out of Richmond in a decade.
"Not only is she well-rounded and technically sound, she has that it factor," he says, noting she can make a crowd hang on her every word. "She is gifted and can compete in any era of hip-hop, whether we're talking 2018 or the golden era of the '90s."
Looking back, Hicks still recalls the first time someone else heard her skills after her mom caught her rapping while she was grounded in her room.
"I was rapping about being on punishment and wanting to get out of it so I could write about other things: family, friends, the neighborhood," she says, laughing.
Her mother, a project management specialist, and father, a construction worker, often filled their house with classic sounds. He'd play soulful records from artists like Frankie Beverly and Maze while she would blast Biggie, Jay-Z and Naz. "We'd vibe out to all kinds of music," Hicks remembers.
As word spread about her talent, her sister gave her money for studio time at Da Spot, a famed rap studio located on Grace Street near Virginia Commonwealth University. "I recorded back then on actual tapes," she says.
Her first shot at local celebrity came during on-air cypher battles on 106.5 the Beat. Zxulu the Big Lip Bandit held regionally renowned battles, pitting one local talent against another in a battle of words, and the young Hicks, at the encouragement of family and friends, called in to compete.
"I sounded like a little kid and he told me I was too young and hung up," she says. Undeterred, she called back and proclaimed her supremacy. "I'll battle everyone at the radio station." It worked and he let her rap. Before long Lil Nikki, as she was known then, became a champion of the local on-air competition.
From there Hicks' legend began to grow. Rumors swirled about big label deals and one particular meeting, which brought Hicks face-to-face with Roc-A-Fella Records members at the studio itself. Many thought the 14-year-old prodigy had a label deal on the way, but that's not quite how it happened.
Before long real life caught up and schoolwork took precedence over artistic dreams. She went to college and has since learned other creative skills as part of the communications team with the Department of Social Services.
Then one day, sitting in a casino with her close friend B Rock, the two discussed her possible return to hip-hop. Hicks offered a challenge: "You produce me a beat and I'll rap over it." A week later, using only an iPhone app, Rock had crafted the beat that would coax Hicks back into the studio.
Her first release in years happened May 1, 2015, and featured her rapping over other folks' beats as a mix tape. It was enough to re-ignite her desire for her own record and she went back into the studio again with some of Richmond's modern legends — Michael Millions, Joey Gallow and NameBrand — to begin work on "May Day."
"We all knew each other and talked about linking up, and it finally happened and worked out," she says. "I had the mindset that I'd put something out on May Day, that was the goal, and then it turned into something that I couldn't have imagined it being."
Much of the record features themes she rapped about in her bedroom years ago — family, friends and growing up in South Side — but she's added more adult experiences and pieced them together, bridging the gap between then and now.
"There's highs and lows," she says. "It's about where I'm from, what I believe in and where I'm going."
Her goal is to reach the level of lyricism she sees from other rappers in town, mixing old and new sound to create something she and the city can be proud of.
"I think Richmond as a whole is really on it," she adds. "There's originality and lyricism coming out of this town." S
Cole Hicks performs on Saturday, Sept. 22, outside of Brewer's Café in Manchester as part of the Stay RVA Fest from 4 to 7 p.m.