Though he's not the first high-profile producer in Macy Gray's career, will.i.am is the first to make a big difference -- but probably not the one listeners would expect. Gray, whose wonderfully woozy voice was always searching for the right songs and the right context, has usually sounded like a certain segment of '70s soul: the earthier deep soul of early Ann Peebles. Big, however, is the slickest album of Gray's career, with a production finesse that sounds like a different (and opposing) segment of '70s soul -- quiet storm, with its pristine sound, frequent synthesizers, fretless bass, and performances programmed to perfection. These are not the traditional makings of a solid Macy Gray record, but Big is startling and, overall, truly appealing (the first time those two adjectives could be honestly applied to Gray's music). In this slick context, the gritty character of her vocals comes into better focus. The songs, though still written Hollywood-style (with credits often going to three or four or five writers), fit in well with her personality and are among the best in her career. (There's no breakout single but there's also no dog in the bunch.) Meanwhile, a set of super-sized backing vocals gives Gray the testifying chorus she really needs; the opening "Finally Made Me Happy" features no less than Natalie Cole providing backup, and if it doesn't earn airplay on Tom Joyner's radio show, it'll be a tragic omission. As a producer, will.i.am has had trouble in the past when attempting to diversify -- which led to a horrible Sergio Mendes record, Timeless -- but he works well here. There are only a few nods to hip-hop, one good ("Ghetto Love") and the other one rather more difficult (for "Treat Me Like Your Money," will the rapper gets in a pair of stinkers: "I love you like money cuz I love you a lot" and "Baby don't ask me cuz that's the way it is and it's like that and that's the way it is"). It'll be interesting to see if past Macy Gray fans are willing to follow her into adult contemporary territory, while those who might like the new direction will be able to alter their perceptions of her.
AllMusic Review by John Bush
feat: Natalie Cole