“To get inside this head of mine/Would take a monkey wrench/And a lot of wine/And if you wondering ’bout this life I choose/Grab a mirror/Take one look at you”
— Res, “How I Do” (lyrics by Santi White)
The thing about marginalization, as Phillip Brian Harper suggest in his book Framing the Margins, is that the folks who are forced to live on the margins often experience those things that the mainstream views as foreign and unimaginable as real, vital and visceral. I use such decidedly esoteric language as a means of finding some legitimate footing to ground my interpretation of Macy Gray’s The Id. Like the aforementioned lyric from Res’ “How I Do” at the very least, one would need a “monkey wrench and a lot of wine” to fully decipher the full range of intents and meanings emanating from the mind of Macy Gray. Gray, a self described manic depressive, is apparently the sole survivor from a universe of six foot-tall black women, with hair that can only be described as a “hot comb’s fantasy”, and a voice that comes from the intersection in that universe where Carol Channing, Donald Duck, Janis Joplin, former Dre protégé Michell’le, and Billie Holiday (like Sinatra, it’s all about the phrasing) once shared a blunt. As the title suggest, The Id is an (hopefully) unabridged sub-conscious transmission from the deep recesses of the reigning alchemist of contemporary R&B.
Gray was first thrust into the crossfire of media spectacle and surveillance after the release of “I Try” from her 1999 debut On How Life Is. Though there were high expectations among the folks at Epic for Gray’s commercial success — she was first introduced to audiences as the quirky “voice” singing “Winter Wonderland” in a Baby Gap commercial during the 1998 Christmas season — the lead single “Do Something” failed to garner the kind of interest that the label thought the project warranted. “I Try” was the perfect pop vehicle for Gray’s distinctive voice and with her striking and disarming beauty, she shortly become the darling of MTV programmers, eventually leading to the sale of seven million copies worldwide of On How Life Is and a Grammy award. For R&B audiences still hung over on Lauryn Hill, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu, Macy Gray was indeed a “queer” entity, thus she among those few “R&B” (which is some circles only means “rhythm and black” regardless of the genre) acts whose “queerness” was welcomed and indeed sanctioned by mainstream radio and video outlets like MTV and VH-1. It is a tenuous position because these acts are seen as little more than novelties.
Bobby McFerrin and Biz Markie have not had any measurable commercial success since their novelty breakthroughs more than a decade ago with “Don’t Worry Be Happy” (1988) and “Just a Friend” (1989). “Alternative” MTV darlings Arrested Development (“Tennessee”, 1992) and Dionne Farris (“I Know”, 1994) were not able to sustain their careers. While Arrested Development was likely done in by lead vocalist Speech, whose self-righteous pretentiousness in black pop was only surpassed by that of KRS-One, Farris was undermined by “Hopeless”, a brilliantly simplistic ditty featured on the Love Jones soundtrack (1997). In the aftermath of debuts by Badu, Maxwell, Eric Benet and Lauryn Hill’s “The Sweetest Thing”, also from the Love Jones soundtrack, “Hopeless” resonated within urban/neo-Soul audiences in ways that the guitar driven folk-funk of Farris’ Wild Seed, Wild Flower hadn’t. When Farris failed to deliver a follow-up disc full of “Hopeless” singles, her label SONY dropped her.
To Gray’s credit, she has managed to remain relevant to a wide range of audiences by continually trumpeting her own self-styled “queerness”, which to her credit, by all accounts, was a feature of her personality well before she became a pop diva. Between projects she made peace with the neo-soul bourgeoisie with a stunning “funkified” version of “I Try” at the 2000 Essence Awards show, mentored the reigning “round-the-way baby girl” Sunshine Anderson (who I might add is “All Woman”), represented for D’Angelo on the remix of Common’s “Geto Heaven Part II”, spread some cheer on Fatboy Slim’s Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars and was brilliantly lampooned on Mad TV by their resident “mad” sista Debra Wilson in a “trick or treat” skit. Thus no one was really surprised when she took the “award show appearance to promo my new joint” concept to the next level by wearing a full-length dress with the September 18th drop date on it. Therein’ lies the logic The Id — the diva that does any shit is also compelled to say whatever the hell she feels, albeit to some 1960s psychedelic funk that is apparently strung out on post-millennial psychosis, some stank-ass King Curtis-like horns, a healthy dose of Soulquarian beats, and a real respect for “original” old-school hip-hop, as witnessed by a cameo by “The Ruler” Slick Rick and the presence of Rick Rubin as executive producer.
As if attempting to prepare audiences for Macy-mayhem, The Id, opens with “Relating to Psychopath” a song replete with tambourines, Jerry Ruzumna’s wailing piano and lyrics like: “Hot like hot wings with hot chocolate in hell / Cold like my isolation cell / In the winter / While kissing Mr. Freeze.” Trying to dispense any possibility that young audiences would view her as a role model, Gray sings in the song’s chorus “You are relating to a psychopath / Your role model is in therapy / You must be real far gone / You’re relating to a psychopath.” Gray ups the ante on Kelis “Caught Out There” with the frankly disturbing “Gimmie All You Lovin’ or I Will Kill You” Crazy has never been so funky as the track, which samples Rita Marley’s “Jah, Jah Don’t Want” and features one of several appearances by the Neo-Soul Overlord Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, sounds like King Cutis got a demo of one of Dr. Dre’s tracks about 25 years early. The “I’m so crazy in love with you” theme is flipped to “you’re so crazy how can you love me?” on “Boo”, as Gray sings in the chorus: “You / Tell me that you love me if it’s true / Why am I runnin’ from you and who / Are these bitches on my machine / It’s a good thing you don’t hate me.” But even Gray knows that crazy can’t hold a project together, thus despite her very public embrace of crazy, ultimately its about some out-the-box soul. (Like JB said “I don’t know karate, but I know k-razy”)
The sweetly simplistic lead single “Sweet Baby” is as beautiful a piece of pop music that will be released this year, save Five for Fighting’s “Superman (Man of Steel)”. The song, which gives a subtle nod to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and the Stanley Clarke and George Duke’s same titled 1980 recording, features backing vocals by the equally distinct and disarming Erykah Badu, particularly evident on the on the song’s bridge. Written by Gray in 1995 and reworked numerous times by the artist, the song soars courtesy of the Charles Veal, Jr. stunning string arrangements. Gray’s finely tuned soul sensibilities are powerfully present on “Don’t Come Around”, which features a wide range of stellar collaborators including the legendary Billy Preston (the fifth Beatle) on Hammond B-3, Sunshine Anderson on backing vocals and co-production by Rafael Siddiq (also on guitar), who atones for his rather bland production efforts on The Isley’s Eternal. The real “star” of the song is the horn arrangement by Printz Board which gives the song the feel of Aretha Franklin’s underrated classic “It Ain’t Fair” (This Girl’s in Love with You, 1970).
The most pleasant surprise on The Id is Gray’s remake of Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” replete with a cameo by “the Ruler” himself. The original recording was released on Slick Rick’s 1988 classic The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, a recording that despite the general acknowledgement that it was one of the true classics in all of hip-hop, is still vastly underrated. In Gray’s hands the song is transformed into a quirky off-kilter lullaby (“Don’t be a dumb dummy / And disrespect mommy / Why? / She put you on earth / And loved you since birth . . .”). Other standouts include the gutbucket frenzied “My Nutmeg Phantasy” — or in other words some crazy-ass brown funk lovin’ — which features Angie Stone and Mos Def in far too short cameos. On the Joplin-esque “Forgiveness”, Gray borrows a melody from Hoyt Axton’s “Never Been to Spain”. There are of course other bizarre moments, as Gray apparently drops a nod to Dr. Zhivago on “Oblivion” and re-invents Lady Miss Kier and Deee-lite (why?) on “Sexual Revolution.”
Macy Gray was not going to change the (pop) world. She has never taken herself as seriously as the critics that anointed her the savior of (black) pop two years ago. What Gray possesses is a distinct voice and even more distinct personality that has given her the kind of visibility that she could have never imagined-the gawky brown girl with the squeaky voice has perhaps “queered” our perceptions of “The Diva”. When all is said an done, Macy Gray will simply light up another blunt and two or three million “fans” will likely-figuratively and literally-light up with her.