Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Macy Gray

  • On How Life Is [Epic, 1999] **
  • The Id [Epic, 2001] *
  • The Trouble With Being Myself [Epic, 2003] B+
  • The Very Best of Macy Gray [Epic, 2004]  
  • Big [Geffen, 2007] Choice Cuts
  • The Sellout [Concord, 2010] A-
  • Covered [429, 2012] B+
  • Stripped [Chesky, 2016] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

On How Life Is [Epic, 1999]
If only Esther Phillips had written her own songs, she would have sung worse ones ("I've Committed Murder," "Caligula"). **

The Id [Epic, 2001]
extraordinary voice, interesting person, familiar ideas, ordinary music ("Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You," "Nutmeg Phantasy") *

The Trouble With Being Myself [Epic, 2003]
I know she's supposed to be an eccentric hipster--helps explain that grit-on-velvet voice, which seems so very outré with female pop options cut back to girlish simplicity and operatic aspiration. But except on the magnificent "I Committed Murder"--revisited here in a jokey variation that doesn't wash--her songwriting hasn't been up to the role. Now, done with that id shit, she finds her voice by pleading with her man to stay or come back as the case may be. Her big argument: "She Don't Write Songs About You." She's pretty, she's rich, she cooks, she reads, she keeps house, she gives good head. Macy will grant all that. But she don't write songs. B+

The Very Best of Macy Gray [Epic, 2004]
Prematurely ejaculated to exploit a skyrocket's diminishing name recognition, this 16-tracker--five from the debut, three each from two and three, three non-album things, and three remixes--demonstrates the endurance of On How Life Is, the fragility of The Id, and the unjust obscurity of 2003's The Trouble With Being Myself. "Caligula," "She Don't Write Songs About You," and the matter-of-fact "Gimme All Your Loving or I Will Kill You"--all missing--would further reinforce her cultivated aura of sexual rapacity. Nevertheless, her best. [Recyclables]  

Big [Geffen, 2007]
"Get Out," "Okay," "Ghetto Love" Choice Cuts

The Sellout [Concord, 2010]
Not beat-oriented--it's back to the songwriting basics, by Gray alone on dynamite opener and closer. Not mega-targeted--it's niched toward an older audience that buys physical albums, a cohort this sexed-up, 42-year-old mother of three knows better than she lets on. But in its double-down on the chorus parts of old-fashioned verse-chorus-verse after verse-chorus-verse, it could almost be The E.N.D. As with the Black Eyed Peas, Gray's aesthetic strategy is a commercial strategy because she no longer thinks there's much difference. For those of us who've always loved her voice and shrugged off its thematic accoutrements, this is what the 2007 bellyflop Big meant to be; it's the Macy Gray album we didn't know we were dreaming of. And when she declares the guy who started killing her softly in the library her "personal president of the United States," we're glad for the thematic bonus. A-

Covered [429, 2012]
Ten non-Gray songs, three comedy skits, and three brief cameos for her kids and their high school pals. The songs are all post-1980, meaning post-song--from the era when bands began distinguishing themselves by sound. Credit producer Hal Wilner with isolating the melodically verbal in Metallica, Radiohead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sublime, My Chemical Romance, and lesser lights. But 1) the high point is the opening "Here Comes the Rain Again," an anthem on the face of it that Gray wrests from Annie Lennox forever; 2) a low point is the closer from the anthemic-on-the-face-of-it Arcade Fire, a major structural mishap; and 3) an even lower point is the Metallica centerpiece, which could be my problem but I bet isn't. Casting directors should note that the comedy skits are genuinely funny; Gray should note that I'm omitting the cameos when I put this in iTunes. But both are distractions. Fun as it is to hear her do "Creep," "Teenagers," and "Smoke Two Joints," this is a bigger mess than it had to be. B+

Stripped [Chesky, 2016]
Gray was past 30 before she generated songs and persona suitable to a burred purr so striking she wasn't always so sure she liked it herself, evoking without equalling both Billie Holiday's timbre and Sarah Vaughan's size. The reason she got to take that voice pop is that plenty of us loved it. But some of us also thought she was forcing her portentous writing and wicked ways, and soon the pop market she was too mature for had had enough. Only then a funny thing happened--having given up on glory, she started making better records, none finer than this efficiently recorded jazz quartet showcase. Guitarist Russell Malone and trumpeter Wallace Roney earn their minutes, but mostly they make room for Macy as she eases into a few of her own standards and tops them with the new "First Time." And although she wasn't the only one born to sing "Redemption Song"--sometimes I think we all were--she does it humble and she does it proud. A-

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