With her 1999 debut, On How Life Is, Macy Gray set a standard that even then, it seemed unlikely she’d top. Blessed with a voice and a way with lyrics that was unorthodox to say the least, Macy’s debut was an almost-perfect meld of pop/funk grooves and irresistible melodies. Thanks to the album’s second single, “I Try,” this most unlikely of superstars found herself with a multi-platinum album and a (well-deserved) Grammy award.

Unfortunately, things very quickly went south for Miss Gray. The Id fell victim to the sophomore slump. Macy took the “I’m a freak” image a little too far, the album had the misfortune of being released a week after 9/11, and the ostentatious “Buy My Album” dress Macy wore on the MTV Video Music Awards just a few weeks before left a bad taste in some folks’ mouths. After a more conventional (read: boring) third effort, Macy switched labels and teamed up with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am for 2007’s Big. Despite joining forces with one of pop music’s biggest stars and scoring a handful of big-name cameos from the likes of Fergie and Justin Timberlake, Big failed to catch fire, and Macy laid low for a couple of years. Aside from a probably ill-advised turn on Dancing with the Stars, Macy’s been AWOL — until now. Her fifth studio album, The Sellout, finds Macy adopting the most polished, of-the-moment production of her career but still retaining some of that goofy charm that made her a superstar a decade ago.

Listening to the first couple of songs on The Sellout, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the album’s title wasn’t meant to be so ironic. Songs like the title track and “Still Hurts” put Macy into a contemporary framework, complete with cheap-sounding synthesized production and even (Lord have mercy) Auto-Tune. She seems to be aiming straight for Top 40 radio, or at least to Hot AC/”adult alternative,” which is where she originally made waves. Initially, I thought first single “Beauty in the World” was a lazy attempt to create a singalong anthem to get on the radio, but the song’s grown on me a bit and even though it’s still not one of Macy’s better efforts, it fits within the context of the album a lot better than I thought it would.

Thankfully, once the album sets in you realize that Macy hasn’t completely abandoned her offbeat image. “Kissed It” is the type of casually sexual jam that Macy’s done several times before (see: “Sex-o-Matic Venus Freak” and “Sexual Revolution”), but the crunchy arrangement (provided by the remaining members of Velvet Revolver) helps to give the song a fun yet trashy feel. On “Help Me,” Macy successfully interpolates the slightly unhinged sound that finally made Cee-Lo a star as a member of Gnarls Barkley, while “That Man” finds Macy basing a love song around the theme to the Batman TV series from the Sixties. The Sellout‘s big surprise is “Real Love,” a surprisingly pretty duet with none other than Bobby Brown. Yes, THAT Bobby Brown. I can’t believe it either.

What’s the thing they always say in order to justify someone never being able to top their debut album? Oh yeah. You have your entire life to make your first album — one shouldn’t be expected to recreate that genius every two years or so. That obviously isn’t the case with some artists, but I think that at this point it’s probably fair to say that Macy will never critically or commercially top her first album. However, The Sellout is a charming collection that somewhat successfully juggles Macy’s offbeat personality with songs that could feasibly make it onto the Top 40 airwaves. While the album title is somewhat appropriate, the album is also solid enough that the title of its last track — “The Comeback” — could end up predicting its (and Macy’s) fate.

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