One of the most encouraging developments in pop music over the last few years has been the emergence of a minimovement of artsy, bohemian female R&B singers. This club -- which includes Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Macy Gray -- is fairly disparate, but it's united by a singer/songwriter's commitment to individual expression and an appreciation for everything from vintage '70s soul to jazz to underground hip-hop (admission seems contingent on name-checking or recording with the Roots).
Gray is hardly the most talented vocalist of this bunch (that honor goes to Scott). Nor is she the most poetic (Hill) or the most musically adventurous (Badu). But Gray's limitations are part of her power. Her wildly eccentric voice is barely more than a raspy whisper and is easily overpowered by backup singers and rampaging horns. But if her voice is not a powerful instrument, it's certainly unmistakable, and it perfectly captures her engagingly schizo persona: simultaneously stoned and ditsy, angrily defiant and proudly unhinged. With her skyscraping 'fro and pink feather boas, she's part campy blaxploitation parody and part earnest social revolutionary. It's a combination not heard in R&B with such multiracial flavor since the heyday of Sly and the Family Stone, to whom Gray frequently pays homage with her Sly-influenced live version of "Que Sera Sera."
Gray is not a musical visionary like Stone, but her polished funk-rock ensemble makes good use of her retro-modernist skills. Even more than her promising 1999 debut, On How Life Is, her sophomore effort shows her venturing all over the musical map. Take "Sexual Revolution," in which she equates bedroom freedom with generosity: "You've got to express what is taboo in you/and share your freak with the rest of us." After a brief classical fanfare, the song turns into a moody ballad, and by the end of the first verse it's kicked into a Studio 54 disco romp that would make Gloria Gaynor proud.
But Gray's greatest coup comes with the deep funk of "Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You." It's hard to think of another singer who would be sympathetic, and even endearing, while holding a semiautomatic to a guy's head. As Gray admits in the song, her methods "may be suspect," but the results seem to justify her excesses.