FITTING IN: The new Macy mostly abjures the sad-clown vocal theatrics of old.
The craziest thing about the new Macy Gray record, Big (Geffen), is Gray’s choice of coiffure. On the album cover she’s Big Bird. In the CD booklet she’s a member of My Chemical Romance. On the disc tray she’s Brian Grazer caught in a windstorm.
This is significant, since on her first three albums, Gray worked hard (in a musical way) to carve herself a niche as R&B’s resident wild child: “Sex-o-Matic Venus Freak,” “I’ve Committed Murder,” and “Relating to a Psychopath” challenged popular notions of what an R&B chick should sing about and how she should sound doing it. While the lovely ladies of Destiny’s Child were telling no-good men how little they were needed, Gray was flailing around in corpse-bride eye make-up and moaning about the world crumbling down around her.
Yet once you get past Big’s packaging, the new album — Gray’s first since 2003 — introduces a different Macy, one more concerned with fitting in than with standing out. The new Macy mostly abjures the sad-clown vocal theatrics of old. And she’s more interested in sleek radio-friendly beats than the funky retro-boho stylings of “Do Something” and “Why Didn’t You Call Me.”
For her makeover, Gray turned to will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who executive-produced Big and helmed the majority of the album’s dozen tracks (with help from Justin Timberlake, among others). Will’s a smart choice: as he’s proved over the course of two blockbuster BEP discs, he has a knack for making things sound fresh and youthful in an unforced fashion, and here he keeps Gray from sounding like an old lady attempting to keep up with scantily clad MTV babes half her age.
Yet as tasty (and tasteful) as some of these tunes are, Gray herself seems tamped-down on Big in a way she never has before. Even in “Strange Behavior,” a putative old-Macy throwback about two lovers trying to kill each other for the insurance money, she sounds hesitant to let her freak flag fly. The album’s missing the outsized personality that used to be her calling card.
Introducing Joss Stone (Virgin) is not without its own cover-art provocations: the disc tray depicts the 19-year-old English soul singer — naked save for a suit of psychedelic body paint — astride her producer (and rumored paramour), Raphael Saadiq, who also happens to have disrobed. As its title suggests, Introducing, like Big, heralds a makeover: this is Stone’s third album, following a pair of self-consciously old-school efforts built around the young white singer’s uncanny ability to mimic black soul greats three times her age. But she’s been referring to the CD in interviews as the first one on which she’s truly been allowed to express herself.
For Stone, unlike Gray, that means following through on the promise of the outré packaging: these tunes are all about sexual discovery and the importance of change and making it through the rain bruised but not broken — sentiments Stone sings about with young-person passion, as in “Put Your Hands on Me” (Rose’s words to Jack in Titanic), where she lets loose with a series of multi-syllable howls that make it clear she’s not in the mood to wait. Saadiq’s as smart a choice as will.i.am; he provides a sensual throb that modernizes her music without sacrificing the warm live-band vibe she no doubt believes distinguishes her from Rihanna and Ciara. In the likes of “Girl They Won’t Believe It,” where she informs haters that “you can’t pin me down” over a delirious glam-soul shuffle, Stone makes a case for herself as R&B’s youngest new eccentric