The Sellout is Macy Gray's fifth studio album, coming out after a three year break. Gray has had a scattered career, starting with a strong debut, 1999's On How Life Is, which introduced her unique voice and quirky personality. Her followup releases have varied in their success, doing somewhat better in the UK than in the US. Her last album, Big, did all right, but lacked her earlier spark.
Gray has described The Sellout as a love letter to her fans, but it's easy to read the subtext of the album as a self analysis and response to the current state of her career. The bookend songs, The Sellout and The Comeback, make that plain, even as they reveal Gray's inconsistency. The Sellout really hits on the theme of doing what she needs to do to get back in the limelight. There's a cynicism in the chorus, even as she admits that "I'm not the same as I used to be." The production is much more modern and busy, showing how she's trying to embrace a newer sound to regain relevance. By The Comeback, she's saddened by what she's lost and she admits that she doesn't know where she's going. Plaintively, she asks, "Would you take me back if I told you that I haven't changed a bit?"
The rest of the songs bounce between her take on modern pop soul and her classic groove sound. It's clear that she really doesn't fit that newer sound, because she sounds a little awkward and drab in neo-disco grooves like Lately. She's strongest here when she plays to her strengths, like on Beauty in the World. Here, the simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and upbeat lyrics come together to make a pleasant song. The optimism matches her voice better and she knows how to deliver this kind of message.
Macy Gray's key strength is her unique voice - it's intriguing, with a childlike innocence that contrasts with the velvety Billie Holiday, world weary rawness. Her style of casually tossing off her lines gives her a conversational style that is an echo of classic soul artists like Bill Withers.
The retro tone of Help Me fits her delivery perfectly. Alternating between an R&B drive and more laid back soul grooves, Gray has room to stretch out a lyric or speed through a chain of words, fitting the mood of the line. This middle section of songs, from through Beauty in the World through Stalker are the strongest of the album. Speaking of Stalker, Prince deserves a writing credit on this one; it's effectively a reworking of his song, Kiss.
The Sellout has some nice musical touches, but Macy Gray needs to figure out who she is. Then, she might have a better idea of where she's going. In the meantime, I'll sip a simple glass of Pinot Noir.