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Reckless self-indulgence is a common trait in hiphop, but seldom is a self so indulged as on Macy Gray’s gutsy sophomore effort, The Id. The album’s Freudian title succinctly sums up the untamed force with which Gray breathes spirit into her favorite twin obsessionssex and heartache. But the record also reveals her to have an ego to go along with the id.
Gray’s personalityand personaset her apart in contemporary R&B. They dominate this album, with Gray taking the opportunity to express the wretched excess and pain she finds in her affairs. Gray’s music celebrates the glamorous life’s seedy side in the same way Tupac’s work romanticizes thug life, and she revels in her stoned soul persona to the point of telling Vibe (in October’s issue) that she knew from an early age that she’d never live to see 50. Such fatalism sends a clear message: If Erykah Badu and newcomer Lina try to evoke Billie Holiday’s melancholy mystique, Gray’s take on the myth of Lady Day is more genuine and unsettling.
Personality, not originality, is the key to Gray’s music, too. Her idiosyncratic quack isn’t too different from Badu’s shrill coo, and her sound is similarly grounded in the nascent nu-soul movement’s rootsy live instrumentation. There’s a hiphop sensibility, too, that adds considerable spice, leaving the bling-bling behind. There are no obvious hits bobbing in the The Id’s emotional turbulence, save maybe the funky bonus track, “Shed,” which uses the bass line to the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can” to great effect.
The lyrics that Gray pens, on the other hand, show considerable inventiveness, and the attitude that they signify shows her to be a far earthier diva than her contemporaries. Gray’s hair is nappy, but you’ll never hear her claiming that this makes her a queen (see India.Arie). She never stoops to preachy platitude or wraps herself in self-aggrandizing Afrocentricity. In her ballads, Gray’s poignant lyrics articulate the complexity and nuance of messy relationships simply, without relying on the boilerplate clichés of urban romance. And they acknowledge the guilty pleasures embedded in the pain of toxic relationships.
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In part, the Lady Day vibe comes from the edginess of the topics that Gray chooses. When she sings about her love for a man who abuses her on the album’s first single, “Sweet Baby,” or confronts a wayward lover on “Boo” (“You/Tell me that you love me if its true/Why am I runnin’ from you and who/Are these bitches on my answering machine?”), listeners feel a brooding heartache similar to that evoked by Holiday tunes such as “Don’t Explain” and “Billie’s Blues”and similar surges of disgust, as well.
Gray’s id is indeed her persona’s driving force, but the album seesaws in both tempo and mood. The album’s twitchy opener, “Relating to a Psychopath,” conjures emotional instability through images of the singer feeling “Hot like hot wings with hot chocolate in hell/Cold like in my isolation cell/In the winter.” The klezmerish singalong “Oblivion” celebrates Gray’s freakish freedom with a dense mishmash of oompah choruses and carnival horns, and yet it conveys an underlying gloom through lyrics that trumpet “Ignorance is bliss/Don’t know nothing but this.” More familiar, and more frisky, are the libidinous workout “Freak Like Me” and the disco romp “Sexual Revolution”; the latter urges listeners to “[e]xpress what is taboo in you/And share your freak with the rest of us.” The line between sex and aggression blurs on “Harry,” in which Gray uses a lover for sex, and the spunky “Gimme All Your Lovin’ or I Will Kill You.” In that song, Gray stalks a man, threatens his life, then sings: “It’s amazing what a gun to the head can do/My baby loves me now as hard as he can/My methods may be suspect/But you gotta get love however you can.”
The brash sexuality of The Id swings toward tenderness on its soulful ballads. The slightly folksy “Sweet Baby,” with its lush orchestral swells, soaring background chorus, and angst-ridden melancholy, is filler compared with superior ballads such as “I Try” and “Still” on Gray’s first album, On How Life Is. She revisits the ballad formula with more success, however, on the misty “Don’t Come Around,” which echoes the raw Stax/Hi Records feel of “I Try.” This time, Gray sings about moving on from a bad relationship instead of hanging on. In tender lines such as “Please don’t come around/Bringing me down/Tossin’ and turning/My smile’s upside down,” Gray evokes familiar sentiments with unusual force and power.
The musical and emotional ups and downs of The Id wouldn’t be complete (in Freudian terms, at least) without contributions from a superego. For Gray, that psychological center of control is in the mix. For instance, most R&B stars would do more to exploit the high-profile guest appearances by Badu, Sunshine Anderson, Angie Stone, and Mos Def to score points with listeners. But a few listens to the lukewarm “Sweet Baby” (marketed with the eye-catching tag “featuring Erykah Badu”) reveal that The Id is strictly Gray’s party. To put it bluntly, Badu’s voice (as well as those of Stone and Mos Def on “My Nutmeg Phantasy,” and Anderson on “Don’t Come Around”) is mixed so far down under Gray’s that it is nearly invisible, thus rendering the “featuring” billings pointless. Old-school rapper Slick Rick is the only “guest” who actually sounds “special,” perhaps because he’s featured on the magnificent makeover of his own cautionary tale “Hey Young World Part 2.” But even Rick’s cameo is briefand carefully managed so as not to upstage Gray. It’s a conventional diva move from a truly unconventional diva. CP