For a woman who never quite fit the mold of a pop star, it was one album and one song that catapulted her into international stardom.
But after winning a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance with the international smash hit "I Try" and selling more than 7 million albums worldwide with her debut "On How Life Is," alternative R&B crooner Macy Gray found herself in a sophomore slump that came just as unexpectedly as her success.
Having released her second album, "The Id," in 2001, one week after 9/11, Gray's music career became one of the casualties of the aftermath, with the nation's radio formats veering away from the quirky and more toward upbeat mainstream pop and R&B.
But with 2007's "BIG," Gray has triumphantly returned with a strong album that she says will reintroduce her "big style, big heart and big talent."
Artistically, the album is a big departure for Gray, who had shunned collaborations in the past, opting to work with one producer and write her own lyrics.
But this time around she works with superstar producers like Will.i.am (of the Black Eyes Peas) and Justin Timberlake to introduce her to new fans without alienating her loyal base.
With a sound that has always been a bit eclectic and off-center, "BIG" veers more toward alternative adult R&B/pop in the vein of the Outkast and Kelis. It's a tactical move Geffen Records Chairman Ron Fair hopes will spell out multiplatinum success much like it did for Mary J. Blige, whose album he also worked closely on.
Her Ups and Downs
"This album is just about my life and having fun. It goes through my ups and downs," says Gray, never one to shy away from vulnerability. On the Will.i.am produced, "Finally Made Me Happy" Gray sings a sentimental love song to her ex-husband about the day he finally made her happy …" by walking out the door."
And with Natalie Cole on backing vocals delivering some soul-stirring ad-libs and scats, the song is vintage jazz with couture soul.
The album is undeniably peppered with Gray's signature quirky lyrics, most vividly on the song "Strange Behavior," where she pursues what she calls "other options" to divorce by killing her husband for his insurance policy.
It may sound a bit brutal, putting a modern touch on Ella Fitzgerald's "Miss Otis Regrets," but in Macy's hands, the sound of death never resonated so sweetly. Singing to friends at dinner about her husband's absence, "he'd be here, but he deceased," you're almost happy she did it. In a guilty pleasure sort of way.
Juggling a Career and Motherhood
And as the mother of three children, ages 12, 11 and 9, Gray says she often wrestles with the guilt she feels about being a working mom -- something she says she also sees in the struggle Elizabeth Edwards currently faces after her cancer recurrence.
On "What I Gotta Do," one of the album's more intimate moments, she sings "What I gotta do/there no place I'd rather be than there with you/but it's what I gotta do to take care of you/and make it right."
Being highly supportive of women who pursue their careers and dreams while raising families, like Edwards, Gray says, "I think it's a beautiful thing. You just really have to make the best of every moment that you can."
Although the album attempts to bring Macy more towards the mainstream, unlike previous efforts, Gray still faces the same challenges that plagued "The Id" and "The Trouble with Being Myself" in 2003.
Challenges such as a nation focused on war and fear, and radio formats not geared toward her particular brand of music. She addresses these issues on the song "Everybody," which she says " 3is about how everybody has to play a part in progress in the world. We all have to pitch in if we want something to change."
On everything from the war in Iraq to music and individuality, Gray sings about the importance of being proactive in one's own life and choices.
This plays out in her personal life through the M. Gray Music Academy in North Hollywood, Calif., where she provides affordable after-school and weekend music classes to youth in the area.
But for her efforts, only time will tell whether the buying public responds kindly to Macy Gray's "BIG" comeback effort as they did for Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige recently.
But if the album's lead track is any indication of what's to come, the public may finally make Macy happy and put her back at platinum-level success.