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Crouching tigers, dangerous to woo, aiming sex and ego at disparate age demographics

Imps of the Perverse

by Carol Cooper

Macy Gray
The Trouble With Being Myself


Both women crouch nearly nude on their album covers, gazing with feral yet somehow fetal reproach at potential consumers, like naughty fairy changelings who've had wings snapped off. Similar to Shakespearean sprites, these fey creatures seem a little mean, dangerous to woo. Mya's Moodring and Macy Gray's The Trouble With Being Myself are third-album efforts for both artists, who aim seductive funk at disparate peer groups. Ten years Macy's junior, Mya panders to teens and twentysomethings, while Macy's dark sense of humor is best appreciated by those over 25.

Ego, sex, and the single life play out a little differently for Gray than for Mya. The latter still casts herself as the streetwise spitfire, selling toothy poon and attitude. Gray is more pensive and self-deprecating; she tips her hat to video vixens like Beyoncé and Braxton for having better bodies to sell, but banks on brains and dry wit to put over her bittersweet ditties. Both albums, however, find new topics to explore in a market glutted with assertive feminine perspectives. Mya and Jam & Lewis's Flytetime offer an ode to menstruation in "Late," while Macy has her quirkiness quotient upped a notch by producer Dallas Austin, who adores alterna-kink and encourages perverse murder fantasies like the bouncy neo-ska of "My Fondest Childhood Memories."

Indeed, Macy's decision to team with Austin this time around gives her anarchic brilliance just the right creative counterbalance. While Macy and her co-writers' idea of "retro" might be classic Porter & Hayes, Austin's retro borrowings are a bit more contemporary--say, the Jackson 5 or Rufus--giving Gray an accessibility that often escaped her Rick Rubin-co-executive-produced last album, The Id. "She Ain't Right for You," for example, is absolutely the best rock ballad the Rolling Stones never recorded for Hi Records in the late '60s. Imaginative blends suffuse the entire CD, playfully peppered with live horns and strings that make their keyboard analogs sound timid and wan by comparison. Macy's nostalgia for vintage Al Green melodies and Austin's fondness for brisk drum-corps backbeats may sometimes be a hard sell to black radio programmers, but the right video might crack that door for "Speechless" or "She Don't Write Songs About You." Not that Macy will worry--if The Id could go gold, this CD should go platinum, with or without black radio.

On the other hand, Mya already has a street hit with the single "My Love Is Like . . . Wo," which oozes from radio speakers and sucks your libido down its oceanic rabbit hole like a riptide. Written and produced by Missy Elliott but arranged like something En Vogue would have sent up the charts in 1991, it plops Mya's chirpy soprano into testosterone-drenched riffs punctuated by sampled gasps for air. Valiant attempts by Ron Fair, Rockwilder and Jam & Lewis notwithstanding, nothing else on the album is quite so perfect a vehicle for Mya's predatory sexuality. The singer's sound stays anchored in fusion-happy '80s punk-funk (e.g., a thinly veiled Rick James retread entitled "Sophisticated Lady"), despite a flirtation with bossa nova loops and her bonus-track run at the vintage Roberta Flack hit "Compared to What."

So why oscillate between all these divergent stilos? Because similarly recombinant crossover queens like TLC and Janet Jackson left a gaping window of opportunity in the commercial marketplace. So although Mya varies her album's mood with sweet pop-dancehall and trendy "I'll kick your ass" rants, she's really waiting for one of her insatiable nooky anthems to win her the ever rotating demon-lover franchise on America's pop charts.

Published in: Village Voice, Oct. 24, 2003