Pop: Gray's down-home grit radiates cool

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THE NEW Princess of Down-home Soul slopes into view fashionably late - people were beginning to talk. "Does she think she's a big star now?" And, "Why you keep us waiting, Macy Gray?".

A 6ft, 30-year-old single mother of three from Canton, Ohio, Gray has always moved at her own pace. But, years spent in obscurity - first as an aspiring screenwriter and then on Los Angeles's jazz hip hop crossover circuit - fuelled the songs and shaped the talent that has emerged fully formed on this year's extraordinary debut album, On How Life Is. The record invokes a legacy that stretches from the aching lucidity of Billie Holiday to the warped wicked funk of Sly Stone and beyond. How do you follow that?

She is wearing a fur-trimmed frock coat and diamond choker, her "nappy" hair is brushed into a Don King-like vertical fringe, but Gray has no need for fake airs and graces. She prowls and sashays across the stage of the Shepherd's Bush Empire, the band is cooking and she's in her element - cool, confident, in control.

On the admonishing opener "Why Didn't You Call Me" her voice is an insinuating growl that wraps around a twisting bass groove, glides on a lush cushion of Rhodes piano. On the imploring "Do Something" she matches the DJ's staccato turntable scratching and glows with soft aching sensuality as she recalls "a dream I had in my bubble bath" before ending with a roof raising funk mantra.

It's great. Every bit as great as her hype says. Then it gets even better: sizzling, funny, righteous social commentary on "I've Committed Murder" and an unerringly salacious "Sex O Matic Venus Freak". The latter's heart- racing climax - Gray's wordless improvisation duelling with the red hot band - would have done vintage James Brown proud.

The stylistic range is awesome. "A Moment To Myself" switches from the tantric intimations of "Venus" to intimate contemplation, there's space synthesisers, a little S&M and a dark Latino beat on "Caligula" and a startlingly original version of Lennon and McCartney's "With A little Help From My Friends".

In an era of metronomic beats and over-reaching and overrated divas, Gray stands alone. The singers who are often cited as her peers - Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu - are too nice, too polished to compete. Her gritty, grainy voice is a once-in-a-generation find - capable of expressing power and vulnerability, pain and release, often in the same breath.

She's ultra cool - the fur-trimmed coat didn't come off all night - but totally immersed in the music.

Gray can neither be called a retro casualty nor a slave to modern packaging or technology. She finally has a group that's her equal - attuned to the finer details of her singular personality. She calls her heady brew of blues and jazz, hip hop and deep soul, Soul 2000. She's well worth waiting for - the next century is sounding like heaven already.