Macy Gray was already 32 years old when her debut album arrived in 1999. If she sounded, even then, like a whiskey-soaked Billie Holiday/Aretha Franklin, well, she was no ingénue. On How Life Is had the slink of neo-soul, the consciousness of hip-hop, and a bunch of strong songs that Gray herself co-wrote in her years singing jazz and studying screenwriting.
Since her debut, however, Gray’s work has been spotty and strange, saleable and then disappointing, too eager to please and also not pleasing enough. Passed around to a variety of producers, Gray’s glorious and idiosyncratic voice has been a star performer. But like an R&B Denzel Washington, Gray has too rarely found vehicles worthy of her star turn.
Now, after a hiatus of three years, Gray reappears with The Sellout, a recording titled in — we are supposed to assume — irony. This is clearly an attempt to return to form, to reinvest in the soul grooves that launched a career and that made Gray’s voice so instantly recognizable.
Some tunes here do just that. The title track and album opener is a slow soul groove built around a hand-clap feeling and featuring a sing-song blues melody. The arrangement gives Gray plenty of room to place the notes in and around the beat, and the textures — synth-strings, echoes around the vocals, hip-hop thumps, jangly-chorused guitar, even a whispered hint of Auto-tuning that avoids cliché — are smartly employed. That is to say everything is set up to feature the unforgettable voice. Score one for Gray.
But if The Sellout is a winking title, then what accounts for “Kissed It”, a song on which Gray is accompanied by the band Velvet Revolver (Guns N’ Roses minus Axl Rose), a leaden rock song with one of the limpest guitar solos of the new century? And what about the duet with washed-up Bobby Brown, “Real Love”, a long exercise in unison singing, fingersnap percussion, trite lyrics (“I would walk a million miles for you”), and minimum interest? Blech.
The real problem with The Sellout is that it, in fact, wants to be a sellout but isn’t a very good one. These blatant attempts to cash on famous names are weakest tracks here.
The rule on The Sellout is that the earthy, neo-soul material is still what works best for this old-soul voice. So, the disco feel of “Lately” is fine as can be, with the ripples of strings and the rising chorus sounding like a good 1979 dance floor, up to an including a hip vocal breakdown that re-explodes right on cue. “Still Hurts” incorporates bright and sharp background singing on the chorus that is a shiny tonic of relief against Gray’s raggedly charming singing. “That Man” is sing-song blues with a go-go-boots-groove, a winking horn punch, and a great out-chorus.
On the other hand, when Gray gets away from her roots, things just go flat. “Beauty in the World” is built on a strummy acoustic guitar pattern and a synthesized “shaker” percussion track, with a square-Joan-Baez melody. The references to “shaking your booty”, needless to say, are humorously wrong. “On & On” has a very mechanical groove that might have worked perfectly for Beyoncé, but here it just hangs Gray out to dry, as the layers of bells, background singing and the like just overwhelm the song.
My favorite track here, however, is not a particularly old-soul tune. “Let You Win” is a fresh and clean arrangement that combines acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, a spacey synth line, and a fantastic release section that seems like it comes from a good Bill Withers tune. It suggests that Gray could be a refreshing artist if she just had more great songs. Gray’s throwback voice is not her only strength, but it is her main strength when she is forced to carry generic material.
The Sellout is supposed to be a return to form, and in patches it is. Macy Gray’s impossibly wonderful croak is still great to hear, but your ear winds up begging to hear more of Gray as the true soul singer she is. Does Sharon Jones need a night off? Because it’s flat-out thrilling to imagine what Gray could do with a band like the Daptones charging beneath her.
Instead we get the fairly generic “The Comeback”, which sounds so much like the admirable “Sellout” that it vaguely compromises both tunes. Which is the dilemma now for Macy Gray. She has something special, but the frame that should be leading a larger audience to her rasp just goes round in circles of indistinctive styles. It’s hard not to wish that this substantial talent had a more pointed vision for her music.
Ten years on, Macy Gray still has the ability to thrill your ears, but her conviction to really sell out — or to really “sell out” — is limited. Either choice might work better than this middle ground.