Macy Gray’s debut in 1999 was a breath of fresh air. In an industry fueled with extremely mannered, somewhat interchangeable vocalists (especially among women of color), Macy was different. Her lyrics were charming and witty, and she wasn’t the typical R&B queen. She was the slightly loopy next-door neighbor, with a voice that conjured up everyone from Billie Holiday to Sesame Street’s Grover. On How Life Is was one of the best debuts of the decade, fully deserving of it’s multi-platinum status and Grammy recognition.
The follow-up, 2001’s The Id, found Macy riding the express crazy train. It was actually a pretty decent album, but the fact that it was a freewheeling, loose album released when the country was in a state of mourning following 9/11 doomed it. There’s no excuse for her third album, The Trouble With Being Myself, which was decidedly average and quite dull, an adjective you’d have thought would never apply to Macy. Her record company, Epic, noting Macy’s diminished commercial prospects, cut the star loose after the release of a quickie hits compilation, setting the stage for Big, Macy’s fourth studio album and her first on will.I.am’s A&M-distributed imprint.
I would love to say that this album is a triumphant return to form, but it isn’t. Not to say Big is terrible. The mere fact that Macy’s voice is so odd will give an air of uniqueness to anything she records. Big’s biggest problem is that it’s a little too safe. I can understand why it’s safe — after all, Macy’s obviously trying to regain her footing in a wobbly music industry, but there are too many times on this album where it feels like the character has been drained out. The result is a perfectly serviceable adult-soul album. You won’t rush to turn it off, but you won’t be jumping for joy while it’s spinning, either.
Will.I.Am, as the album’s primary producer, wisely keeps a low profile here, perhaps learning from his overbearing train wreck of a production job on fellow alt-soul siren Kelis’s last album. He and Macy have enough chemistry that they can eke magic out of a song as bad as “Ghetto Love”. Lyrics about the prototypical “thug” would generate a yawn if sung by most of today’s young R&B singers, but when the trite lyrics are sung by someone who sounds like a demented Bee Gee, the song attains a certain surreal quality that makes it listenable. The fact that the song features a well-executed sliced ‘n’ diced sample of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” also helps matters. It’s one of several tracks, including the rollicking “Get Out” — one of two solid tracks co-produced by Justin Timberlake, that harkens back to the Macy of old.
The abundance of soft-focus ballads make you appreciate the up-tempo tracks even more. Macy’s a unique and gifted vocalist, so why saddle her with adult contemporary pablum? Towards the middle of the album, tracks like “One For Me” sound like elevator music. The next track, “Strange Behavior” apes that sound and also finds Macy repeating herself by telling a story about murdering her boyfriend over an insurance policy — a loose variation on her own 1999 hit “I’ve Committed Murder”. The best of the slower songs (the sunny piano ballad “Finally Made Me Happy”) finds Macy relegated to a supporting role on her own record. She’s completely upstaged by Natalie Cole, whose whoops, hollers, and indelible chorus are the only things you’ll remember about this track.
Much like this album’s cover and inside photos, which feature a professionally made-up Macy looking fairly glamorous, there’s a sense that Macy’s music has been airbrushed a little too much for this album. While Big shows flashes of the irrepressible spirit that made Macy’s first two albums fun to listen to, there are many more instances of uninspired, boring music designed to capture a middle-of-the-road audience. It’s hard to imagine that Macy’s lost her mojo already, but after two straight mediocre albums, it definitely appears there’s a spark missing. The album may be called Big, but the only thing really big about it is how disappointing it is.