Ken Tucker looks at two genre-bending African-American artists: Macy Gray and Kool Keith

By Ken Tucker
Updated August 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Is radio ready for musicians who defy categorization?

America has always felt easiest with its black artists when they fit into easily identifiable, consumer-friendly categories. Thus, for example, latter-day Louis Armstrong was the jolly trumpeter who growled ”Hello Dolly” with a grin, but Miles Davis is a difficult case because he never stuck to one genre, often turned his back to his audience when he played his trumpet, and NEVER smiled. Flip Wilson could host a variety show because he was a sunny sprite, but Richard Pryor had his TV show censored and canceled because he wanted to make some social commentary with bite.

This insistence upon the dominant culture?s categorization occurred to me again upon listening to two new CDs: ”Macy Gray On How Life Is” (Epic) and Kool Keith?s ”Black Elvis/Lost in Space” (Ruff House/Columbia). Gray is the beneficiary of extensive hype from the media, from Newsweek to the New Yorker, who are approaching her debut as if she?s the next variation on Lauryn Hill — i.e., a strong black woman creating radio-friendly, mostly upbeat music.

But I wonder if Gray’s debut is going to be played as widely as Hill?s solo album was: Gray is more of a genre-jumper, moving from the balladry of a song such as ”I Try” to slippery funk on ”Caligula” to a bleak, Tom Waits-y story-song, ”I?ve Committed Murder.” One characteristic of pop culture?s approach to unclassifiable black artists is that there?s often only room for one of them in the spotlight at any given time; it may be that Gray?s eclecticism will work against her. She won’t be hip-hop enough for the rap programmers and fans, and she’ll be too hardcore for the pop division.

Kool Keith is even more of a conundrum. Working within hip-hop?s cut-and-paste aesthetic, he invokes white icons like Elvis Presley and dumps on other black artists? work, remarking at one point that some rapper is ”as wack as the ‘Bulworth’ soundtrack.” More hardcore eccentric than eclectic, Keith is a non-nerd sci-fi fan who toys with sexual themes (in another incarnation, he was Dr. Octagon, author of the CD ”Octagonecologyst”).

On ”Black Elvis/Lost in Space,” Keith is all over the place, rapping about Bill Clinton, robots, and, of course, the implications of what it might mean if Elvis, white admirer of black music, had been black himself. Chances are, Keith speculates and I agree, you wouldn?t have even heard of him. Too weird, don?tcha know. Too uncomfortable-making. Too original.