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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In 1999, neo-soul diva Macy Gray burst onto the music scene with her hit "I Try."

(Soundbite of song, "I Try")

Ms. MACY GRAY (Singer): (Singing) I try to say goodbye and I choke. I try to walk away and I stumble. Though I try to hide it, it's clear. My world crumbles when you are not near.

SIEGEL: Subsequent releases from Gray never achieved that same success, but now she's out with a comeback album called "The Sellout."

Critic Robert Christgau has our review.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Macy Gray's strategy was to combine a distressed velvet voice that was impossible to ignore and hard to forget with goodly helpings of kink. On her debut album, "I Try" came between songs called "Caligula" and "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak."

But that album was launched into an expanding music market where female vocalists and black pop were growth sectors. Instead, the market plummeted and her label bailed.

In 2007, Geffen Records promised to finally make her big with an album called "Big." The sales were the puniest of her career. That's the one she should have called "The Sellout." But then she wouldn't have been able to lead her new one like this:

(Soundbite of song, "The Sellout")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) And I'm out on a limb. I'm giving in. I'm selling out to the pay, to the show. This is my gimmick, and I want to win it. I'm selling out. I won't fight you no more. Honey babe and honey boo, I always pictured you by my side forever. And I can't believe that you're gone now because I got a love to give.

CHRISTGAU: That slam-bang chorus, one of many on "The Sellout," implies that the sellout is about show, gimmick, words Gray embraces eagerly. But the verse suggests that she's somehow selling out to her honey boo. And later in the song, it sounds like the subject is her career again.

So I figured that like many pop artists before her, she wants to sing about her love life and her musical life at the same time. Track three, "Kissed It," is less ambiguous.

(Soundbite of song, "Kissed It")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) I was going to leave you, then you dipped it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Dipped it.

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) Baby, you fixed it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Fixed it.

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) When you kissed it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Kissed it.

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) I don't wanna fight, baby. Kiss it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Kiss it.

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) Because I miss it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Miss it.

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) Make it all right.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) All right.

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) Boy, you light a fire in me.

CHRISTGAU: Or maybe there is an ambiguity here. Maybe what's lighting Gray's fire isn't a sexy guy, but the slam-bang chorus itself, delivered in this case by the post-grunge band Velvet Revolver. Although "The Sellout" avoids the orchestral fromage Geffen poured over "Big," it's got nothing against corn. You can't get much cornier than "Beauty in the World." Listen to how shamelessly the chorus fulfills the sweet promise of the verse.

(Soundbite of song, "Beauty in the World")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) When I look around I see blue skies. I see butterflies for us. Listen to the sound and lose it in sweet music and dance with me. There is beauty in the world. So much beauty in the world. Always beauty in the world. So much beauty in the world.

CHRISTGAU: Personally, I find Gray's stab at the musical jugular invigorating. Having never enjoyed her attitude as much as her voice, I'm happy to be able to commune with that voice undistracted by sex-o-matic Venus freaks.

The album is on Concord, a niche label geared to traditional tastes, so nobody's expecting a full-scale comeback, commercially. But spiritually, it is a comeback, which is why Gray closes with a big ballad called "The Comeback." Once again, she blends the romantic and the professional. She likes the results so much, she even adds a little cheese.

(Soundbite of song, "The Comeback")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) And maybe if I had more money, maybe if I was more pretty, I'm going in circles when it hits me that I don't. I don't know where I'm going. Where I'm going. And all you big rockers, stay hot, hot, hot. Look at how they leave you when you're not, not, not.

SIEGEL: The latest album from Macy Gray is called "The Sellout." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

(Soundbite of song, "The Comeback")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) Would you take me back if I told you that I haven't changed a bit? Baby, would you go for it? Would you take me back if I told you that?

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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