By Simon Vozick-Levinson
June 01, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

When the rumor mill started whirring last summer, it seemed like it had to be someone’s idea of a joke. Were we seriously to believe that Irv Gotti — the hip-hop impresario best known for bringing the world Ja Rule — was on the brink of signing piano-pop princess Vanessa Carlton (“A Thousand Miles”) to his label? But it was true: Last November, Gotti (pictured, left) formally announced that Carlton (right) had joined the family formerly known as Murder Inc. Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I dropped by the Universal Music Group’s offices yesterday afternoon to meet Gotti and get a sneak preview of Carlton’s album Heroes and Thieves, currently scheduled for an October 9 release on The Inc. Records.

Gotti’s faced his share of drama, including high-profile 2005 money-laundering charges against him and his brother. (Both were acquitted.) He was remarkably open about those legal woes, recalling the advice he gave Carlton when she was ready to sign her contract: “I said, V, before you fully [commit], Google me!” But with The Inc. on an upswing thanks to the recent success of R&B smoothie Lloyd (“You”), Gotti was in a downright buoyant mood yesterday, singing along enthusiastically to every word of Carlton’s new compositions.

addCredit(“Irv Gotti and Vanessa Carlton: Johnny Nunez/”)

He’s acutely aware that his love for Carlton’s music might strikeoutside observers as a bit unlikely — but as far as he’s concerned,they couldn’t make a more natural pair. “I make great chick records,”Gotti argued with characteristic bluntness, citing his past work withartists like Ashanti. He’s got a point. Aside from superficialstylistic distinctions, how different was “A Thousand Miles,” really,from a pop-friendly R&B cut like Ashanti’s “Foolish”? Besides,Gotti said, major-label honchos work with artists outside of the genreswith which they’re most closely associated all the time. “They signhip-hop. Why can’t I sign a pop act or a rock act?”

Cogent as they were, all those points would have added up to emptytalk if the music didn’t work. Luckily, the five new songs Gotti playedsounded pretty great.Turns out he didn’t try to transform Carlton intoan urban diva after all. (“I think [her fans] would have beat me up,”he explained.) Instead, the new material was upbeat, melodic,brightly-hued pop, full of twinkling arpeggios and tasteful strings —in short, a bunch of new Vanessa Carlton songs. It’s always hard topick out a hit after an isolated listen, but if lead single “NolitaFairytale” — “Take away my record deal/You know, I don’t needit/…I’ve found some kinda fairytale” — isn’t in heavy radio and MTVrotation by the end of summer, I’ll be surprised. And possible secondsingle “Hands on Me” (Irv: “It reminds me of The Breakfast Club!”) sounded tailor-made for a rom-com trailer coming soon to a theater near you.

Gotti couldn’t resist hyping a few of his other upcoming projects.There was a time when I never thought I’d say these words, but I’llactually be checking for Ja Rule’s new album (also due this fall), ifonly to catch the song where they somehow managed to get clearance fora prominent sample of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Gotti was alsoexcited about the upcoming VH1 reality show which, he said, chronicleshis stormy relationship with his ex-wife and his attempts to mount amusic-biz comeback after his federal acquittal. (“Run’s House is like The Cosbys; they say my show is like The Sopranos,” he said with customary modesty.)

So whose second act are you looking forward to more, PopWatchers:Vanessa Carlton, Ja Rule, or Irv Gotti himself? And which unlikelyartist should The Inc. sign next? (Say, what’s Michelle Branch up tothese days?)

  • Movie
  • Unrated
Complete Coverage
Available For Streaming On