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Retro Review: On How Life Is

August 8, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The quirky and controversial Macy Gray makes her hip-hop/soul debut.

Fun Facts

  • Everyone remembers this album for its big single “I Try,” which I still hear come up as occasional background music in big box stores. Though On How Life Is was released in 1999, the single actually debuted in the 1997 rom com Picture Perfect. It also was not the first track from the album to be released as a single. That distinction belongs to the Outkast and Nice & Smooth-sampling “Do Something.”
  • Before her debut album dropped, Macy Gray made her first major-label appearance on the Black Eyed Peas’ debut album Behind The Front.
  • I remember Macy Gray getting popular around the same time the hip-hop/soul movement of artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Musiq Soulchild, Jazzy Jeff (free from the Fresh Prince), and King Britt was making waves in both the mainstream and underground. While a lot of those artists came up through the Philadelphia scene, the Ohio native Gray started making connections while attending USC and working a cashier job in Beverly Hills.

Ups

  • Gray lives up to her album’s title by covering a wide range of topics from self-affirmation (“A Moment To Myself” & “The Letter”) to passionate sex (“Caligula” & “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak”) to the murder ballad (what?). Yes, “I’ve Committed Murder” is a smoldering tale of Gray saving her lover from a jerk boss by “dealing with” said boss, taking her money, and fleeing to Jamaica with lover in tow. Unlike songs with similar subject matter by, say, Johnny Cash, this ballad has a happy ending. Gray wrote all of the lyrics on the album and the sheer variety really speaks to her talents as a songwriter.
  • Jeremy Ruzumina’s instrumentation is full and lush. The funky rhythm and horn sections really keep the music chugging along. The production also uses cool samples from Outkast (on “Do Something”), DJ Shadow, and Kurtis Blow (both on “A Moment To Myself”). The selective sampling keeps the listener on his/her toes without being gimmicky.
  • Gray and Ruzumina can write an infectious chorus. I can totally picture Gray leading crowds in sing-alongs of “Do Something,” “I Try,” and “I Can’t Wait To Meetchu.”
  • Finally, the unique and soulful aspects of the album come across when delivered through Gray’s signature raspy voice. Gray follows a long line of distinctly-voiced divas including Billie Holiday and Minnie Riperton, and her gravelly alto gives her lyrics character that a cleaner singer would fail to deliver.

Downs

  • However, when I talk to friends about Macy Gray, I am told her voice was a dealbreaker for them (and they often go into bad impressions of her singing “I Try.). I admit that I wasn’t into Gray initially and I found the overplaying of “I Try” on radio and MTV annoying. It took her appearances on Fatboy Slim’s “Demons” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Request Line” to convince me to give her a serious listen. The bottom line is, if you can’t get past her rasp, I understand your hesitance, because it’s like that for the whole album.
  • A criticism I often have of funk and soul albums is that the constant full power of the lush backing band can have things run together. Luckily producer Andrew Slater keeps the album a tight 45 minutes so it never overstays its welcome. Still, it would have been nice if the music went down a notch every once in a while.

Conclusion: Macy Gray makes a name for herself on On How Life Is through her many distinctive qualities beyond her voice. Her varied, unique lyrics; her solid taste in music, and her rock solid production team and backing band make On How Life Is a deep but filler-free soul album. If the most recent thing you remember about Macy Gray is her appearance on Dancing with the Stars, I recommend you give this record a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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