Macy Gray has a voice like a butterfly. No not Madame Butterfly, although Gray’s lilting soprano would certainly fit Cio-Cio-San’s touching aria. But Gray would not kill herself for any man. Gray also stings like a bee. She’s more like Mohammed Ali and would knock Pinkerton out and keep her baby. Which is a long-winded way of saying that Gray is sprightly, wistful, and even rapturous, but depending on the song and the sentiments, she can turn her charm into a weapon, cut like a knife and even twist it with glee. That’s what makes her latest album, Ruby, so interesting. You never know where she’s going until she gets there.
For example, she turns the phrase “Over You” into something that is the opposite of its usual connotation. The term usually implies one’s relationship is finished and one no longer desires the person one loved so badly. Gray changes it so that the two-word phrase means that she is head over heels in love. She sings of her confusion at her joy (“there are castles in my sand”) while a New Orleans style horn section happily wails. Her bewilderment at the unexpected turn of events can also be found in the background noises, such as the sound of Pac-Man dying in the background mixed with the fluttering of her voice. The result is irresistible fun.
Gray can also be serious. On “White Man”, presumably addressed to President Trump but applicable to all who would belittle her because her race or gender, she makes it clear that she’s not to be trifled with. “Hey WHITE MAN, I am not my grandmother,” she begins and announces the days of a black woman kowtowing to a white man are over. Gray then expresses her pride at being who she is and offended by the presumptions of others who try to put her down. She ends the song promising she will whip the ass of anyone who doesn’t respect her. Her strong, beat-heavy intonations show she means business. However, she also ends the song with a call for all to get together. She doesn’t want conflict. She wants everyone to be living well together.
This dichotomy, the butterfly and bee (or bee and butterfly, the order dependent on the track) suggests Gray understands the complex dynamics of living in the real world. Her ode to a man who mistreats her (“But He Loves Me”) offers a telling example. She bears the physical, mental, and emotional scars and knows she should leave him, but she also believes in his love and that she is his angel. “It’s not that simple, it’s not black and white / When all I am is the color blue,” Gray passionately sings. She’s not making excuses. She’s just saying that she can’t go. Love conquers all and even triumphs over common sense.
It would take someone with the wisdom of the “Buddha” to comprehend what it all means. “The future is in the air / And the past is in the ground,” Gray sings and reminds us that we are in the here and now. The song offers delightfully odd layers of classical instrumentation (including a violin and cello) joined together with more modern ones (synths and programming) in addition to a howling guitar solo by Gary Clark, Jr. This aurally re-enacts the past and future melded together in the present.
Ruby showcases Gray’s creativity. While the subjects may vary from song to song, they are all deeply emotional and frequently happy. She finds it good to be alive even when circumstances might bring one down. That’s a gemlike piece of wisdom worth remembering.