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On the cover of Macy Gray's fourth album, her face appears in close-up, wreathed in black feathers. Nothing says "diva" like being wrapped in feathers, and the modern soul-pop artist with the powerful, fetchingly odd voice is framed here in epic settings, including sweeping orchestral R&B, dance-flavored hip-hop and psychedelic funk. "Big," indeed. It's far from the organic charm of her multiplatinum 1999 debut, "Macy Gray On How Life Is," but this collection hangs together better than 2003's "The Trouble With Being Myself" or 2001's "The Id."
Gray's co-producers, the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am and Geffen chairman Ron Fair, apply strings, beats, glitter and guest stars (including Natalie Cole and Fergie) with the adept precision of contemporary hit-makers. But what stands out is her messy humanity, as she draws on experiences with a troubled marriage and single motherhood for such numbers as the breezy "Shoo Be Doo," the resolute "What I Gotta Do" and the wry mid-tempo R&B ballad "Finally Made Me Happy." Gray's knack for turning a lament into new hope is devastatingly realized on the percussive "Slowly," a tear-jerkingly poignant wish to savor good times.
Still, the similarly wistful "One for Me" is like cotton candy at a theme park: toothache-sweet and quickly forgettable. The husband-offing noir tale "Strange Behavior," while amusing, feels like a rehash of her debut's "I've Committed Murder," and the new-wave-flavored romp "Treat Me Like Your Money" is a sidetrack trifle. "Big" is a nice return to form for Gray. Too bad it runs out of ideas before it runs out of tracks.
"Buck the World"
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Like a superhero ready to rescue his beloved art form, rapper Young Buck, the Nashville-based member of 50 Cent's G-Unit crew, does his best to bring angst and intensity back to rap on the searing follow-up to 2004's "Straight Outta Ca$hville."
The stellar 17-cut collection maintains a muscular, vibrant and vulgar tone through virtually all of its selections, resulting in an album that could have served as a companion piece to the David Fincher film "Fight Club." Crisp drums, horn blasts and eerie keyboards make Buck's kidnapping and other taunts on "Buss Yo' Head" all the more alarming. The heavy brass sound of the single "Get Buck" provides a burly sonic background, while the sinister bass of "Clean Up Man" works well with Buck's deadpan delivery.
Even when Buck tones it down, it is all relative, as his tune with Snoop Dogg and Trick Daddy contains a smoother beat, but the lyrics remain raw and confrontational. Even when he's rapping to or about the ladies, Buck hits hard on this potent work.
-- Soren Baker
"Life in Cartoon Motion" (Casablanca)
"Do I attract you, do I repulse you with my queasy smile?" this new British chart-topper inquires in his U.K. hit and debut-album opener, "Grace Kelly." The question works just as well when applied to his music, which exerts the allure of the most seductive pop, but does so with the calculation of a predator.
"Grace Kelly" is about someone so desperate to please that he'll assume any position ("Should I bend over?") and adopt any guise ("I tried a little Freddie ... I've gone identity mad") to get it done. And while Mika presumably isn't describing himself, "Life in Cartoon Motion" sounds like a sampler of proven styles begging for approval.
Drawing from Queen, Bowie, Elton, Wham! and the Bee Gees, among others, the falsetto-happy Londoner makes campy, operatic pop that throbs and pulsates, swirls and soars, whips itself into a froth, then dims the lights and goes all moody.
In the best hands, pop's artifice can yield genuine depth of feeling along with its surface pleasures, and Mika (who plays the Troubadour tonight) finds it in "Billy Brown," a bit of Bacharach-style sunshine pop about a man who leaves his marriage for another chap. But over-the-top confections such as "Lollipop" and "Big Girl" make it seem like a random strike.
He's in his early 20s, so he has time to harness his facility to a real vision. He could start by heeding his own lyric in "Lollipop": "Too much candy gonna ride your soul."
Albums are reviewed on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed will be released Tuesday.