At the start of 2009 and ten years into her career, Macy Gray found herself a free agent and on the verge of "The Sellout." Sure, she sold 15 million albums, scored two Grammy Awards, two MTV awards and with "I Try," had one of the most successful singles of all time, but after 2007's Big, she found herself alone, with no one to answer to but herself. Big was the slickest album of her career and she considered going even further away from the true, gritty, whiskey-voice Macy, following instead of leading. In other words, selling out.
"I thought after Big flopped maybe I should do what everyone else was doing," she says. "Go out and hire the hottest producers, the best writers, get real skinny. But none of those people called me back."
For Gray, it was an ego-bruising wallop that left her bewildered and irritated at relationships that turned out to be more fair weather than everlasting. "I was terrified, I didn't know what to do," she says. "You have all these people telling you how dope you are and then they just go away."
Chastened, Gray went back to her comfort zone, toiling in the studio with a select group of friends and musicians. A studio owner in Tarzana gave her a dirt-cheap deal on space and for months she went in and pushed herself to come up with new material. As the new songs took shape, that feeling of rejection gave way to a steely resolve to reestablish herself as one of music's dominant singers. "When I was on my own, I was making songs that I liked," she says. "It was my own money, I didn't have to go play it for someone. I wasn't someone's employee."
The resulting effort - aptly titled The Sellout (Concord Records) - is a return to form for Gray, perhaps her finest album to date, but one that propels her sound forward rather than looking longingly at the past. Sure, there are classic-Macy pop-soul stylings in tracks like "Lately," but she branches out on tracks like the epic stadium rock-stomper "Kissed It" (featuring a blistering guitar solo from longtime friend Slash) or the Prince-like slow funk jam "Stalker" that wouldn't be out of place on Sign O' The Times.
According to Gray, many of the songs started out with a four-on-the-floor dance beat, but then, "everyone started doing it and I needed to stay true to who I am." That shows up on the album's first single, the breezy "Beauty In The World" which started out as a David Guetta-style house track but switched after Gray turned it into more of a rollicking peace & love sing-a-long. "You get bombarded with opinion and expectations and what other people want and you forget what you do well," she says. "That song is what I do well."
Gray also clearly ups her game in the lyrics department, filling out the portrait of herself as an artist. Many of her songs have her trademark wit (check out the horny banter between her and guest Bobby Brown on the steamy "Real Love") but others are more agonizing, whether it's the deeply confessional "On And On" or the making amends of "Still Hurts." "I was depressed," she admits. "I had been through two or three relationships in that time so my love life wasn't going well. Last year was a real bummed out time."
But leave it to her three teenage children to put things in perspective. "Beauty" was inspired by her daughter who one day Macy overheard laughing hysterically in the next room. "I was having a really bad day and I heard my daughter just cracking up in the next room," she recalls. She has this really great laugh and I didn't even know what she was laughing at. I thought ‘at least she's happy.' And I felt at least I hadn't failed there, because my daughter's happy."
Despite the rejection, the uncertainty and the heartache, The Sellout is a total triumph and success. It's a testament to Gray's resolve and songwriting chops that the material feels so honest and authentic but yet effortless, moving seamlessly from one track to the next. There's nothing forced, nothing that feels out of place. Fittingly, the album ends with the anthemic track, "The Comeback," a bookend declaration of things accomplished and the hope for better things to come:
"Hey big world it's me again/I'm coming way back to be big again."
"I just poured my heart out," she says. "I didn't set out to have a theme, but when I put them all together it was a picture of my life in that time. I'm dying for people to like it."
It's the comeback. And The Sellout. And it proves that Gray has no intention of fading away.