Still Tryin'

Macy Gray soldiers on where her formerly mighty neo-soul cohorts fear to tread

Mayhap your iPod has shuffled a Maxwell or Lauryn Hill tune into your mix lately, and led you to question, "Where they be?" The neo-soul giants of the late 1990s have been taking a chill pill all decade, failing to release any full-length studio albums in the digital download era. But these talents were and are far too outsized to be mere chicken-grease flashes in the proverbial pan. Roll call: Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo, 2000; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998 (a whopping nine years ago); Maxwell's Nowand Bilal's 1st Born Second, both 2001. Some players, like Jill Scott, have plowed on, but to diminishing returns. What happened to the neo-soul revolution?

My pet theory is that this boho collective (many down with the Soulquarians crew, so loosely knit from the very beginning that they seem to have unraveled) is taking a breather to wait out the music industry's adjustment to marketing and promotion in the Wikinomics age. Times may have moved on to make way for the mom-friendly r&b proffered by the John Legends and Alicia Keyses of the world, but the fear is still real: How do you avoid your record label flubbing your project when execs are still figuring out LimeWire and Facebook? Badu is set to release three separate albums this year, but the announcement came not through a garish label event, but in the form of a post she made on producer Jay Electronica's MySpace page.

Be that as it may, Macy Gray keeps on dropping 'em, bless her, but without a viral video like "Dick in a Box" circulating on the Net—or a sudden radio-programmer change of heart (nationwide, Hot 97 types never had much love for a sister)—what are her chances? Lord knows MTV is too busy running Laguna Beach reruns to put her in heavy rotation like in the days of her Grammy-winning "I Try" (1999, incidentally).

Always pushed as more of a crossover artist, Macy collaborating with Justin Timberlake (just as a producer, alas) and releasing her new record, Big, through the Universal-distributed label run by the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am comes as little surprise. (Fergie even makes an appearance!) Even less of a shocker is the high quality of tracks that will.i.am cooks up for Macy—he's already effectively abandoned the stigma of a group nobody admits liking and evolved into a producer hot enough to field Michael Jackson's long-distance calls from Bahrain. The freestyle fanatic lets Macy be Macy, while producing the majority of Big (seven out of 13 tracks) himself.

Specifically, will.i.am steps to Big the way Prince approached his Svengali side projects decades ago. "Everybody" is tops, a dance-floor burner with blasts of rocked-out guitar and vague anti-war messages ("Takes more to win than a few good men"). If Prince's famed Linn drum isn't sampled outright, the beats are programmed to identical effect on "Treat Me Like Your Money." Full of retro-new-wave leanings, "Money" is a cheeky Vanity 6 outtake if there ever was one, resurrecting '80s flair better than anything since Kelis's "Millionaire"—Will rocks the mic (copping from Run-DMC's "It's Like That") while Macy cribs "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" on the bridge, just in case you missed the point. These are beats Gwen Stefani shoulda used for her latest disc.

Many Big songs wouldn't sound out of place on a Mary J. Blige record: "Shoo Be Doo," "What I Gotta Do," and even international bonus track "AEIOU." (What makes a CD track a "bonus" in 2007?) But those highlights make the rest of Bigsound like a tedious wade in comparison. Of course, this may not mean much when it's customary to purge the filler you hate from your MP3 player and banish it to digital-wackness purgatory. Aren't the fans who are still paying attention after The Trouble With Being Macy Gray flopped four years back more apt to just buy Big's two stellar songs from iTunes for $.99 a pop? Will this same fate befall Badu and even Hill whenever they deign to reappear? Somewhere, the neo-soul posse are puffin' on blunts and biding their time; somewhere else, label flacks are taking another long meeting, looking over their shoulders for the next downsize.

 
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