Is Macy Gray a nutcase, or does she just play one on TV awards shows? If her urban-stoner image and public appearances didn’t ram home the point enough, Gray’s second album, The id, works overtime to show us she’s wacky, loopy…downright crazy! Where does one start? The first track is called ”Relating to a Psychopath,” a love song in which the psycho in question is her, and its Day-Glo psychedelic soul is a dizzying whir. ”Freak Like Me,” goes the title of another song, this one about an especially carnal affair.
Then there’s a simmering groove called ”Gimme All Your Lovin’ or I Will Kill You,” the lyrics of which live up to the title: After being spurned, Gray confronts her lover with a pistol and demands sexual satisfaction. ”It’s amazing what a gun to the head can do,” she sings, half jokingly, in that high-on-helium rasp, the sound of gravel knocking around in her brain and throat. ”Oblivion” can best be described as a surrealistic R&B polka: ”Everybody in my underwear!” she commands, adding a whole new uneasy dimension to the boxers-or-briefs debate.
It’s always been hard to tell how much of this act is shtick. Two years ago, Gray arrived on the scene with that oversize head, shrub of hair, ghetto-not-so-fabulous wardrobe, and half-awake persona—all ready for her Saturday-morning-cartoon close-up. The package seemed a little too carefully idiosyncratic, not to mention unsettling; in essence, she was marketed as an African-American freak. The id wants to take it all to another level. It pushes any number of musical, lyrical, and sexual buttons, ultimately emerging as both engaging and indulgent.
Like many of her retro-soul peers, Gray firmly believes modern R&B should look back, that it should be made by real musicians playing real instruments like saxophones and non-synthesized keyboards. But part of the problem with Bilal, India.Arie, Angie Stone, and other Gray contemporaries is the lethargic vibe of their music; they’ll return R&B to its handmade glory if it kills them—or their humor. The best moments on The id avoid sanctimoniousness with a wired vibrancy and an awareness of how love and sex can drive one to distraction, if not insanity. (The album title is well-chosen in that regard.) Supported by a battery of musicians from ?uestlove of the Roots to old-timer Billy Preston, Gray merrily hopscotches between nods to funk (”Harry,” in which she prefers a one-night stand to commitment, thank you), majestic balladry (”Sweet Baby,” a song of devotional love that is the album’s supple first single), and phosphorescent funk (”My Nutmeg Phantasy”).
The tracks are brassy and effusive, swelling with horns, organs, and tasteful orchestration. At their best, they deflect attention from Gray’s often irksome voice, which veers toward novelty more than a soul singer’s should. Gray’s pipes effectively bury her numerous guests (including Erykah Badu, Mos Def, and Sunshine Anderson) and nearly ruin ”Hey Young World Part 2,” a faithful update of Slick Rick’s cautionary-tale kiddie-rap hit.
Like Gray’s voice, The id is marred by self-consciousness. Its resurrections of such genres as ’60s soul and ’70s disco (with help from executive producer Rick Rubin, who’s given us new nostalgists the Black Crowes, among others) feel a little artificial. The Stax-lite ”Don’t Come Around” and the glitter-ball romp ”Sexual Revolution” are the pop equivalents of a Civil War reenactment. It’s almost as if you’re back in time, even though you know you’re not. As to the whereabouts of Gray’s mind, it may take another album or two before we’ll know if there’s a prophetic method to her madness. B