Condensing Macy Gray’s appeal into tag-cloud form would yield something like the following list of descriptors: “kooky,” “eccentric,” “offbeat,” and for her voice in particular, “raspy,” “whiskey-soaked,” “acquired taste.” It’s how fans and critics have framed her since 1999’s “I Try,” which goes some way to explain why neither group turned out to help her last album, Big, live up to its name. Working with the likes of Justin Timberlake, will.i.am, and Fergie to turn out a slickly contemporary R&B disc, Gray also diluted a lot of what made her stand out to begin with—even drowning out her spazzy, jazzy vocals with outsized backing tracks and overdubs.
Insofar as the The Sellout improves on Big, it does so by giving a much more honest airing to Macy’s compelling quirks. Her phrasing isn’t as distinctive as it was on her early releases, but at the very least, Gray doesn’t sound like she’s being packaged by a bunch of professional celeb handlers. The Sellout comes with fewer concessions to the hip-hop and dance scenes, which, as Big showed, suit Gray even less well than the sometimes stultifying signifiers of neo-soul chanteusery. Here, Gray and her producers play around with a few different sounds, which gives the slightly incoherent impression of a Gray-led variety show, but it succeeds in providing the singer with some fitting sonic backdrops: “Beauty in the World” and “Let You Win” are two tracks built around simple acoustic guitar melodies, “That Man” imagines Gray at the front of a Crystals-like girl group, and “The Comeback” is an elegant update on the smooth sound of ‘70s quiet storm.
Gray sounds natural in front of those arrangements, but far less so on aggressive, beat-driven cuts like “Lately,” and least of all on the improbable Velvet Revolver collaboration “Kissed It.” I can’t imagine what Gray was aiming for on that last one, but what she ends up with sounds a little like Gary Glitter, a lot like Katy Perry, and mostly like something you won’t want to hear more than once. And really, it’s not too surprising that Gray does better in front of a less assertive arrangement: Her best output has tended to be feel-good music with a distinctively funky flair, which makes it difficult to believe her when she tries to get up in anyone’s face.
Unfortunately, The Sellout doesn’t just embrace the fluffier side of the Gray persona, it smothers it in an awkward, goofy hug. Too often Gray veers into near self-parody, turning out tracks that might well be termed “Sesame Street Soul” for their schmaltzy, major-key melodies as much as their lyrics. “Real Love” is the most cloying of the bunch, containing the following declaration: “Baby, I will kiss you/Even if you have the flu…I’m your superhero, I’m a fan.” Though Gray has prepared listeners for the high level of sappiness by choosing “Beauty in the World” as the lead single, which contains a call to, “shake your booty boys and girls, for the beauty in the world.” All of which makes The Sellout difficult to appreciate in spite of its virtues. Here we have a record that does a reasonably good job of capturing who Gray is…and who she is turns out to be Elmo.