* * * 1/2 MACY GRAY "The Id" Epic
Gray showed a wonderful duality in her striking debut album, 1999's "On How Life Is," but you had to wonder whether the oddly winning mix of '70s soul-music instincts and bold, eccentric personality was part of a truly original vision or simply a fluke.
In this follow-up (due in stores Tuesday), Gray quickly disproves the fluke theory. Working with some of the same writers (and a few new ones), Gray--whose squeaky, distinctive voice is as unlikely a chart favorite as anything we've heard in ages--again offers vintage soul, rock and funk strains that are so pure they seem channeled from an earlier era.
"Sweet Baby," a duet with Erykah Badu, is a gentle, upbeat love song with the potential to soar as high on the singles chart as Gray's memorable "I Try" from the last album. For the equally appealing "Forgiveness," Gray adds a touch of country seasoning drawn from Hoyt Axton's "Never Been to Spain" as the backbone of a gently caressing tale of spiritual quest.
While the funkier, upbeat exercises are smart and snappy musically, tunes such as "Relating to a Psychopath" and "Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You" are psychodramas in title only. They lack the dark obsessions and exotic urges of some of the unsettling songs on "On How Life Is"--so unsettling that they made you wonder about possible demons in Gray's history. Far from unnerving, "Gimme" is a good-natured feminist fantasy, something we might once have expected from Millie Jackson.
There's still some duality at work in "The Id," but mostly the album showcases the further blossoming of an artist who is every bit as gifted as the best moments of her debut suggested.
-- Robert Hilburn
* * * JAY-Z "The Blueprint" Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Being dissed by Mobb Deep, Nas and others may have been just what Jay-Z needed. The immensely talented Brooklyn rapper returns with a vengeance on his sixth album, displaying a sense of purpose that's been absent since his bone-crushing breakthrough, 1998's Grammy-winning "Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life."
On the scathing "Takeover," for example, he flows with unflinching swagger and confidence, outlining the lyrical, business and character shortcomings of his aforementioned rivals. Elsewhere, he pumps up his loyalty to the streets ("Never Change"), teams with Eminem for outrageous boasting ("Renegade") and compiles a clever narrative about a slew of gorgeous women ("Girls, Girls, Girls").
The catchy single "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" illustrates how Jay-Z, unlike most rappers, can match a superior rhyme with a universally appealing beat. Another reason for the impact of this collection is that it's a true "solo" album, in contrast to the hip-hop norm of guest-packed recordings. Jay-Z's proteges, as talented as they may be at times, are nowhere to be found, allowing the rapper enough room to flex his tremendous talent.
-- Soren Baker
* * * BABYFACE "Face 2 Face" Arista
Babyface may have a greater reputation as a record-label mogul than a master of spun-sugar R&B, but as a performer the man's still got the touch. On his new album, Babyface's restraint and bruised vulnerability aspire to a more evolved take on romance and relationships than you'll find in the melisma-soaked pablum of his younger contemporaries.
Rather than objectify his lovers as pheromone bombs or castigate them as shrews, Babyface takes his time, lends an ear, soothes with the velvet caress of his sweet voice. He casts himself in the role of a romantic aspirant, searching for platonic love or trying to retrieve it from the rubble of a breakup.
In "There She Goes," he's "gotta show her that I want her." In "What If," a lament for a lost love, he asks, "What if we were wrong about each other?" In "Stressed Out," a frisky dance-floor funk-a-thon, he's the voice of reason: "It will happen if it's meant to be." "Face 2 Face" nicely balances classic soul arrangements with swatches of hip-hop flavor, but it's Babyface, whose pretty voice flutters and swoops like Al Green's, who holds the album in a suspended state of grace.
-- Marc Weingarten
* * 1/2 TORI AMOS "Strange Little Girls" Atlantic
Accompanying Amos' high-concept collection of takes on 12 songs written by men (in stores Tuesday) is a series of Cindy Sherman-like photographs of the eccentric singer-keyboardist as wildly different characters representing the "essences" of the female viewpoints she found in each selection. Whether blond, brunet, or redhead, garbed in shimmering gown, cop uniform or KISS jacket, each one levels the same enigmatic Tori-gaze at the camera.