The New York Times said she was Ella Fitzgerald meets Tina Turner, perhaps best capturing the spirit of the newest female phenomenon in American music, Macy Gray. Hailing from Los Angeles, Gray is much more than just a Fitzgerald-Turner combination. Her premier CD, On How Life Is, is an eclectic melange – soul and the blues meet R&B, with lyrics frank in their treatment of sex, suicide, marijuana and other topics along those lines. The result is one of the most evocative and brilliant English-language wide-release albums to come out in my lifetime.
Macy Gray’s musical career started in the off-beatlate-night coffeehouses that dominate young Los Angeles. Her break was at the “We Ours,” a widely-known LA espresso joint famous for its odd hours (1-5 a.m.) and the musical talent it attracts. Mainly a venue for jazz, blues and funk, LA java huts were pleasantly stunned with Macy Gray’s charismatic ability to turn everything upside down with a little rock and a lot of R&B.
Gray’s bluesy voice is seductively raspy (and often distortedby the effects of heavy marijuana use). Her singing manages to capture staggering emotions while remaining strikinglycold-blooded. Fundamental to Macy Gray’s unique musical style is her voice, which sends a chill up one’s spine and – when turned up high – can even bring tears to one’s eyes.
Without a doubt, you’ve probably heard the album’s most widely played piece, “I Try.” Probably the least controversial song in On How Life Is, “I Try” is a passionate call for a love constrained by self-imposed repression. “I Try” is an excellent case study in Macy Gray’s ability to fuse different musical genres into one song – it opens with an ingenious union of a cello on a soul background hitting an R&B beat. The song climaxes at Gray’s emotional choral plea, “I try to say goodbye and I choke/I try to walk away and I stumble/Though I try to hide it, it’s clear/My world crumbles when you are not near.” Throughout “I Try”, musical fusion remains key – Gray’s scratchy voice is poised against a background of soul, rock percussion and R&B rhythms.
The first Macy Gray song that I ever came in contact with was “Do Something,” perhaps the most idealistic track on the album. I remember when I first heard it in LA last summer. I was taken aback by its message and its eccentric musical vision – I’m serious, I’m not normally captured by music in such a way, but I was here. In the presence of a friend, I just stopped and listened attentively to it and demanded to know who it was, because I’d never heard anything quite like it before.
“Do Something” is Macy Gray’s most “rap” moment and conjures up images of Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige, yet it still incorporates a soul chorus encouraging us to “get up, get out and do something.” “Do Something” actuallyhas an effect, in that it is the type of song that accompanies a strong mental picture. For me, I envision a group of happy multi-ethnic children running in a field of wildflowers. For an avid fan of political propaganda, this is the perfect track – it symbolizes optimism, the future and progress. If I ever ran for President, this would be my campaign song.
However, On How Life Is is not completely optimistic. In fact, it is mostly quite the opposite. The appropriately placed last track, “The Letter,” is a musical version of a suicide note. With its consistent pleas of “All I ever wanted was…” and “Mama don’t be sad for me,” Gray’s raspy voice – juxtaposed with a hybrid of soul and R&B – can bring me to tears. Gray’s treatment of animpending suicide still manages to inspire and let us appreciate the life she lived.
Another track, “I’ve Committed Murder,” also deals with death. Perhaps the most lyrical song on the album, it is a fictional musical narrative of how Gray murders her boyfriend’s boss because the boss refuses to “give him the little bit of money” she owes him. After being ordered to “get back bitch, I ain’t givin’ you shit,” Gray murders her boyfriend’s superior and is subsequently forced to hide at “her mother’s house.” In the end, she has “no intention of paying for [her] crimes…[and is] gonna get the next plane…and fly away.”
Sex is another common topic for Macy Gray. Throughout On How Life Is, there are rather explicit references to sexual activity, yet Gray’s treatment of carnal pleasure is never vulgar. In track three, “Caligula” (aptly named, of course), Gray opens with “Hush the neighbors hear you moanin’ and groanin’/But I just can’t help it ‘specially when we be bonin’,” and continues later on to inform us that she and her partner are “never lovin’ but we’re always f—in’.”
In “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak,” Gray lets us into the intimate details of her sex life, especially those times when she feels “like an XX rated movie star.” In one verse, her frank sexuality reaches a new crescendo: “When my hands are tied/69 positions and/whip cream all over my skin/lick you from bottom to roof/love to get down with you.” Obviously, these lyrics offend American Tipper Gore Puritan-style instincts, yet Gray possesses an uncanny ability to not come across as vulgar. Gray doesn’t objectify sex; she celebrates it. Coupled with elements of the religious genre of soul, and an upbeat rock/R&B melange, Gray’s treatment of sex is refreshing and exhilarating – it’s a much-needed declaration of independence from the prudishness of a scared Middle America.
The other tracks on the album maintain Macy Gray’s unique musical style and continue a frank treatment of the controversial. The opening track, “Why Didn’t You Call Me” is a tad weak, but “Still” is characterized by a stunning instrumental session that swallows much of the song and brings to mind a jazz bar. “I Can’t Wait to Meetchu” and “A Moment to Myself” continue the Macy Gray theme of jarring lyrics set to funky sounds.
On How Life Is is a glaring look at urbanity, youth, love, drugs, sex and death – I can think of no other album in recent memory that is so able to jar the mind and excite the heart. Her ability to bring together the uncouth and the traditional, both musically and lyrically, are simply astounding and are cause for worthy praise. From “looking forward to the day [she] dies” to “XX rated movie stars,” Macy Gray captures raw emotion with her uncanny and inspiring musical individuality.