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Cee-Lo should by rights be record-store poison. A stocky 5-foot-6 with a penchant for feather boas and choir robes, the Atlanta-based hiphopper (aka Thomas Burton) sings and raps in a high-pitched croak that sounds like Truman Capote reading the collected works of Iceberg Slim. And the guy’s out-there, too: While high-school friends André Benjamin and Antwan Patton were getting started on a little project called OutKast, Cee-Lo kept himself busy playing in the numerology-obsessed Goodie Mob.
That group invented the term “Dirty South” on its 1995 debut, Soul Food, with Cee-Lo largely relegated to being the conscience of the group. His gospel-informed songs served as an effective “What the fuck?” counterpoint to the rump-shakin’, cheddar-makin’ rhymes of bandmates Big Gipp, T-Mo, and Khujo, but there’s only so long you can be the guy whose job it is to write the obligatory tribute to strong black women. So nobody was too surprised when Cee-Lo went solo in 2002. (Well, maybe Goodie Mob was surprised: Its first post–Cee-Lo LP was called One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.)
Still, there’s no way anyone could have predicted the freaky textures of Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections. Opening with a song that sampled Primus and quoted bits of the Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House,” Cee-Lo declared himself a son of Mother Nature and God Almighty and mentioned a bunch of times that he knows he’s bad. The album’s self-produced backing tracks, meanwhile, were sloppy stews of free jazz, funky organ, and Aphex Twin–ready beats. But the most important thing about Perfect Imperfections is that, though it had a couple of good singles (“Gettin’ Grown” and “Closet Freak”), no one song overshadowed the others. Cee-Lo even rocked leitmotifs—which is one hell of an achievement in commercial hiphop, a genre that has become more formulaic than most sitcoms: You take your club banger; your glossy, Neptunes- or Timbaland-produced surefire hit; your we-are-so-gonna-have-sex jam, add some skits and a few cameos, and, bada-bing-bada-boom, we’re outta here. Peace. It’s hard to imagine that Dre and Big Boi weren’t paying attention while they were recording their similarly sprawling, equally catholic Speakerboxxx/The Love Below the next year.
It’s also hard not to wince when you notice that the new Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine has two Neptunes collaborations, one Timbaland-produced single, some club bangers, a slow jam, and a Ludacris cameo. Say it ain’t so, Lo! Don’t tell me the man who made the somewhat obvious declaration “I am not one of these thug rapper guys” two short years ago has developed a thirst for pimp juice.
Let’s start with the single, which was released this past November. “I’ll Be Around” is a glossy Timbaland production, yes. It’s also built around a beat that sounds uncomfortably like the kind Tim’s Virginia Beach colleagues the Neptunes make in their sleep, but whatever: When Cee-Lo drawls, “If you came here to move there’s ease in the boogie,” he’s unlocking the mystery of great R&B: tight beat plus loose flow equals big payoff. (Besides, the moment when Timbaland swaggers into the second verse saying, “I’m also from the South” is completely exciting.)
About that flow: Cee-Lo can rap straightforwardly, but he often switches without prelude into a syncopated, jazzy style that allows for an impressive number of words per minute. He also sing-raps sort of like Nelly and delivers his lyrics as if they were a sermon. The subject of the sermon is usually Cee-Lo, and at least twice he posits himself as evidence that God creates miracles. That kind of claim can get old pretty fast—you make albums, dude, which is not quite the feeding of the 5,000—though in the context of a groover such as “The Art of Noise,” it’s quite forgivable.
And there’s more evidence our man hasn’t gone totally gangsta quite yet. “My Kind of People” is a Kool & the Gang–worthy anthem in search of a block party, and its languid horns and gentle piano comping practically make you smell the burgers burning. “The One” manages not to be a run-of-the-mill club-igniter when Cee-Lo spends a chorus thanking the lady he picked up the night before for her attentions, even asking for her autograph. And “All Day Love Affair” is a lovely domestic tableau featuring soulful brass and Cee-Lo’s working-man narrator waking up next to his wife, going to work, and looking forward to waking up next to her again.
That nice-guy vibe makes Soul Machine’s odd triptych of thug anthems, “Evening News,” “Scrap Metal,” and “Glockapella” all the more jarring. First off, they’re completely unbelievable: There’s really nothing more ridiculous than someone who sounds like Eartha Kitt in drag telling you he’s going to “run a box cutter across your face.” For all I know, Cee-Lo Green the Man is perfectly capable of pointless violence, but Cee-Lo Green the Soul Machine has hardly prepared us for that claim—or the one that he’ll put a gun “between your baby mama’s belly and squeeze off two/So the world won’t have to deal with another fuck nigga like you.”
Indeed, God is Cee-Lo’s most trusted confidant on Soul Machine, so perhaps He knows why the MC felt the need to try to pass himself off as something he isn’t. I suspect it has to do with a complaint Cee-Lo voices in the Pharrell Williams duet “Die Trying”: The Source called him “extreme” and “alternative” and gave his record no microphones.
The gambit isn’t going to help matters any, but “Die Trying” is where it’s at, anyway. “Before we came being Southern wasn’t something to claim/The flag wasn’t something to fly/It was something to blame,” Cee-Lo rhymes, and now we’re getting somewhere. He goes on to a catechism of things he believes in: Cee-Lo, God, Southern rap, Martin Luther King, Marvin Gaye. “I could be a pretty good thug but it wouldn’t compare to a great me,” he admits, offering to “keep my feet on the ground and bring the sky to you.” On Soul Machine, as long as Cee-Lo keeps those peds firmly planted, he’s practically touching the stars. CP