Mack Avenue/Artistry Music
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Having shifted over seven million copies worldwide and yielding a Grammy to its endearingly idiosyncratic creator Macy Gray, the Epic Records sponsored On How Life Is (1999) was an event of a debut album. Yet, almost immediately afterward, it was as if a substantial portion of the public and music press was keen to write Gray off as a “one album wonder.”
This unpleasant sentiment greeted Gray’s sophomore set, The Id (2001). Bigger and brighter than On How Life Is, there was no sophomore slump (artistically) in sight for the singer-songwriter. And still, The Id was a much tougher commercial sell than her first record. But Gray persevered and ended up having the last laugh.
Just one year shy of the twenty-year anniversary for On How Life Is, Gray sits at the summit of multiple albums released steadily within that same expanse of time. Ruby, the tenth collection from this crisp canon, is as robust as any of its preceding sister LPs. This feat can be attributed to Gray’s continued application of her wholly distinctive abilities as a writer, vocalist and collaborator which has made her sui generis in modern R&B.
Lyrically, Gray doesn’t stray too far from her touchstones here: social issues (“White Man”), love (“Over You”) and life (“Cold War”). Gray casts these Ruby song scripts as engrossing character driven pieces or straight-ahead stories where her wisdom (and occasional humor and cheek) shine through.
Gray’s unmistakable croon has lost none of its potency or capacity for getting conversations stirred up in relation to its polarizing appeal. What is rarely commented on is how much actual vocal range Gray possesses. Longtime listeners that are immersed in the inner workings of her discography are hip to Gray’s powers; casual acquaintances on the other hand are blissfully unaware of her skillset. Regardless, Ruby has a wealth of vocal flavors at its disposal for everyone to feast on, from scratchy and bluesy (“Just Like Jenny”) around to soulfully sweet (“Jealousy”).
As a collaborative presence, Gray has always been about community. Whether tasking alongside ace producers like Dallas Austin or Rick Rubin or grooving with guests like Beck or Natalie Cole, Gray’s encouragement of shared artistic expression is clear. Critically though, Gray has never lost sight of her own vision and makes sure that any alliances adhere to the framework of her vision—no exceptions. As this pertains to Ruby, the record’s production is owed to a four-way split between Gray, Johan Carlsson, Thomas Lumpkins and Tommy Parker. Additional musical guests—in a supporting capacity—include Gary Clark Jr. and Meghan Trainor.
R&B (in both a classic and contemporaneous context), black pop and other surprising sonics ensure that the material on this project will linger well past its initial spins. Throwback soul aestheticism continues to be a major point of affection for Gray. She spins aurally incandescent recreations of speakeasy soul (“Tell Me”) or late ‘70s band-based funk (“Shinanagins”) that are startlingly authentic. Yet, she doesn’t wield this aestheticism for the sake of shallow nostalgia.
In most cases, she pairs the old with the new, as heard on “White Man.” “White Man’s” unrelenting uptempo thump is culled from a modish Eurodisco frame of reference, but its spicy piano tinkling, tambourines, handclaps and backing vocal wails call back to old school jazz and gospel traditions. Elsewhere, Gray effortlessly merges the rhythms and spirits of synth-pop, hip-hop and reggae on “Buddha,” “When It Ends” and “Witness” respectively. Upon one’s completion of Ruby, it’s not surprising if the listener is left picking their jaw up off the floor in awe of Gray’s undiminished musical might.
And so, Ruby is another Macy Gray knockout that is all at once friendly and familiar for the faithful, but still strangely fresh enough to draft the type of buzz that adorned her very first recording all those years ago. Further, this long player confirms that Gray’s staying power is no longer in question.
Notable Tracks: “Buddha” | “Shinanigans” | “Tell Me” | “White Man”