Happy 20th Anniversary to Macy Gray’s debut album On How Life Is, originally released July 1, 1999.
Stratospheric. It’s an apt adjective to describe the global success of On How Life Is—Macy Gray’s first album.
Released on July 1, 1999 via Epic Records, the long player garnered clout among discerning critics and soul aficionados almost immediately. And yet, “Do Something”—a moody hip-hop soul confection that utilized samples from Nice & Smooth’s “Funky for You” and OutKast’s “Git Up, Git Out”—had only given Gray demure chart returns when issued one month ahead of its parent project.
Radio and retail instead took to “I Try,” an evocative slice of torchy R&B that Gray served up as the second single—of an eventual four single stretch overall—from On How Life Is; everything changed after its release in the fall of 1999.
Gray soared into the millennium with her inaugural LP well on its way to a triple platinum mark in the United States. A GRAMMY win—out of three nominations—followed shortly thereafter for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 43rd annual awards ceremony in 2001. Then there was the fact that the record had become its own international phenomenon that locked down a bevy of gold and platinum certifications abroad.
Macy Gray was now standing on the world stage as the most prominent face of the neo-soul movement; her only rival at this time was Lauryn Hill who had achieved a similarly dizzying ascent to public renown with her first solo outing, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).
This pathway to Gray’s stardom began unassumingly enough in Canton, Ohio where the vocalist and writer was born Natalie McIntyre in 1967; a childhood bicycle accident led a then-six-year old McIntyre to discover a neighbor’s mailbox inscribed with the name of “Macy Gray.” Unconsciously, she filed the appellation away, not knowing that later it would operate as the designation for the persona she’d employ in her recording career.
As a young woman, Gray departed the Midwest to pursue her higher education (through scriptwriting) at the University of Southern California in the mid-1980s; this, by chance, got her going as a songwriter, a medium she excelled in. At the start of the 1990s, Gray soon found herself moonlighting in several bands in Los Angeles. As the decade wore on, Gray fielded a plethora of opportunities and setbacks—personally and professionally—in quick succession until she finally acquired a deal with Epic Records in 1998. All her adventures became the thematic crux for On How Life Is when the sessions for that album began.
Like many observational storytellers before her, Gray drew upon her own lived experiences—she was now in her 30s, a divorced mother of three—and those of the people around her. The walls between reality and illusion for this song cycle were only as fixed as the listener wanted them to be as they took in the compositions. So, the travails of sensuality (“Caligula”), the weight of desire (“I Try”) and violent, dark humor (“I’ve Committed Murder”) could be felt or imagined by audiences as much (or as less) as they were by Gray herself.
Further extending the appeal of the LP are its musical canvases that are provided by a talented roster of arrangers and players under guidance from producer Andrew Slater. Sonically, it’s clear that neo-soul is the record’s general catalyst, but Gray’s modern-to-vintage instincts are just a bit more visceral than those of her immediate peers and predecessors in that genre. Look no further than the loose, kissable soul of “Why Didn’t You Call Me” or the punchy, band-oriented funk heard on “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak.” These entries—and all the others—combine live instrumentation, samples and sparse programming swimmingly.
It is Gray’s voice that irrefutably fuels the lyrics and music of On How Life Is. Her scratchy, whiskey rich tones infuse “A Moment to Myself” with an esoteric edge and apply conventional melodic sheen to “Still,” two standout performances that highlight the unflinching honesty of a woman with tales to tell. Undoubtedly, Gray’s voice brought the lion’s share of attention to On How Life Is upon its reveal in 1999. It became a point of appeal for many who outnumbered those that dared to deride its uniqueness.
Nine albums have gone forward in the wake of On How Life Is in a twenty-year span of bold music making that situates Gray as a pioneering force in modern R&B and black pop. Her idiosyncratic style is readily apparent today in the works of Lizzo, Janelle Monáe and Solange. It is true that while none of her post-On How Life Is recordings have risen to the same commercial heights of that affair, their superlative artistic qualities all sing back to Gray’s vision of an album that could create an area where the escape from and exploration of life’s many challenges and triumphs was possible.