Music

Macy Gray: The Id

Mark Anthony Neal

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".


Macy Gray

The Id

Label: Sony
US Release Date: 2001-09-18
Amazon
iTunes
"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.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image