- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Big, quirky voice. Big, zany lyrical statements (sometimes about packing big weapons). Big fashion risks. Big ambitions. Singer-actress Macy Gray just doesn’t do small — so when her third album, 2003’s “The Trouble with Being Myself,” fizzled commercially and she found herself without a record label, what did she do? She headed into the studio with a big, accomplished cast of producing and performing talents and made an album called (of course) “Big.”

The latest disc (released in March) features plenty of the unmistakable, raspy voice that first captivated audiences on “I Try,” the smash hit off the artist’s multiplatinum 1999 debut, “On How Life Is.”

Musically, however, “Big” feels more polished and rooted in the present than the works preceeding it. There’s a bit less funky ‘70s soul here and more adult contemporary-style R&B; (“Shoo Be Do”), Fergie-esque balladry (coincidentally, the Black Eyed Pea-gone-solo guests on the smooth, upbeat “Glad You’re Here”) and Kelis-like beat-driven sass (the hip-hop-fueled “Okay”).

At least some of this updated sound can be attributed to the album’s technical crew, which, for the first time in Miss Gray’s career, included multiple producers. The main knob-twisters were Geffen Records chairman Ron Fair (Mary J. Blige’s “The Breakthrough”) and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am (Fergie’s “The Dutchess”). Additional bodies in the booth included R&B; It-boy Justin Timberlake. Natalie Cole and Nas were among the guest vocalists.

“Big” continues to linger on the top R&B;/hip-hop albums chart, and the single “What I Gotta Do” (a sweet autobiographical ditty about being a single mother) is making the rounds on the radio.

“I love the album,” says Miss Gray (who was born Natalie McIntyre). “I listen to it all the time.”

Not that we don’t believe her, but free time must be as sparse as water in the desert when you’re Macy Gray. Consider this: The artist is raising three children solo, touring, channeling creativity into her own clothing lines, reviewing potential movie scripts (she’s been acting on the big screen since 2001’s “Training Day”), finishing her own screenplay, and sponsoring hurricane victims.

While on her cell phone speaking with us, she is juggling quite a few tasks simultaneously. Our first clue is that she sounds a bit distracted. These suspicious are confirmed when she mentions that her brood was out walking with her. She doesn’t mention their destination, but we can only guess it was a restaurant given her query a few minutes into the conversation: “Do you have a menu?” Um, sorry?

Miss Gray is a busy gal, that’s for sure. One can only imagine that the hectic yet successful life she’s living tastes especially sweet, especially since it’s built off a voice that once attracted a lot of negative attention from schoolmates.

“It’s an interesting lesson for everyone,” Miss Gray says. “When you’re young and you’re open to expressing yourself and being who you are, you’re always subjected to having those things struck down, being criticized, being laughed at. But there’s always a chance that that’s the best thing about you.”

The singer’s pipes haven’t been uniformly embraced; some critics decry what they see as a limited range, a flat quality, or other flaw. Some have been turned off by the artist’s “freak flag” — bizarre behavior she loves to tout in songs as well as on- and off-stage. (Listen to “Strange Behavior” on “Big,” an ode to double indemnity, for example. Like several earlier tracks, it hints at Miss Gray’s dark, dangerous side.) Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the performer is a unique voice, both sonically and lyrically speaking, in a sea of musical sameness.

Accepting herself and her atypical pipes is a task she continues to work on.

“I still feel [self-conscious] on stage a little,” she says. “I still put a lot of effort into it. There’s always room for growth.”

Miss Gray performs tomorrow at DAR Constitution Hall (www.dar.org/conthall) with the Brand New Heavies. The show starts at 8 p.m.

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