There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Goodie Mob frontman Cee-Lo is not like you. Cee-Lo is uncommon. Cee-Lo is eccentric. Cee-Lo is a weirdo. He wears wigs with top hats and choir robes. Cee-Lo is surely cut from a different cloth. It is apparently impossible to mistake the Atlanta-based rapper for anyone else, but just in case you were about to, he has made an album, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections. Like Cee-Lo, the album is different. It pulls from rock, jazz, and soul, so you know that Cee-Lo is not your average rapper.
Cee-Lo Green’s first single is “Closet Freak,” a song whose sole purpose is to disabuse the listener of any notion of Cee-Lo’s conformity: “It could be the way I want to freak a song, tattoos, or the way I dress/Or it could be I want to walk my walk and refusing to follow the rest.” In case you still insist on missing the point, there are no Neptunes-style keyboards here. Instead, Cee-Lo howls in the background to the accompaniment of some disappointingly stale-sounding horns. Only on the spooky, thumping bridge does the brass sound truly different, and after a few bars the song returns to its regular shape and purpose: emphasizing that Cee-Lo is a freak.
All of which means, of course, that Cee-Lo is far from being anyone’s bargain-basement thug. “A Thug’s Concern” clarifies this for those of you who have mistaken Cee-Lo for a Jay-Z-alike. The eight-second break begins with someone asking Cee-Lo if he has anything on his album for the thugs. “I mean, well, kinda,” he answers, and then launches into the quasi-battle-rap of “One for the Road”: “It’s not that often that I verbalize the essential element of surprise/I am not one of those thug rapper guys/But this one will help you realize and use both eyes to recognize.” The beat is laid-back and accentuated by jazzy horns, because, besides not being a thug, Cee-Lo isn’t a club rapper, either.
Halfway through the album, even the slowest of listeners will have received Cee-Lo Green’s thesis. What the listener won’t get, however, is any real proof of Cee-Lo’s singularity. Indeed, even Cee-Lo Green’s willful nonconformity is quickly becoming a hiphop cliche. Common, Black Eyed Peas, and the Roots have all spent time wallowing in their own eccentricities while producing work that is very ordinary. And though Lauryn Hill’s recent MTV Unplugged 2.0 doesn’t sound like a hiphop record, it nonetheless bears all the hallmarks of a bad “eclectic” rap album. Unrefined, preachy, and vague, Hill’s acoustic outing sounds different merely for the sake of sounding different. Similarly, Cee-Lo gives us an album that is unconventional because, well, it’s cool to be unconventional.
“Spend the Night in Your Mind” is a spacey, Maxwellesque ballad that is more often revolting than romantic. “Instead of standing in the shallow end,” Cee-Lo intones, “I want to please my partner/I want to fuck my friend/I want to be inside you, literally.” “Gettin’ Grown,” is a campy, piano-driven take on nu-soul testifying: “Been selfish once or twice/Had to learn how to sacrifice/To live to my late 90s be nice/And every day that goes by is divine…/God I owe you this life of mine,” Cee-Lo falsettos, before heading into a chorus of gruff “la-la-la-la-la”s and an improbable whistling break that conjures bad memories of Bobby McFerrin. And “Country Love” makes too much of Cee-Lo’s Southern rootsiness, unfolding a “simple man”‘s mash note against a barnyard melody and harmonica by Blues Traveler’s John Popper.
Then there are the obligatory rap/rock fusion cuts, “Live (Right Now)” and “Under tha Influence (Follow Me).” The former is plenty loud and features a string section augmenting its standard-issue blaring guitar riff, but its cliche-ridden lyrics are submetallic: “And all that in and out of jail is getting old/Let this song here save your soul/Brother live/Start livin’ right now.” The latter spotlights some impressive jazz piano by Joey Huffman, but its lyrics are equally cringe-worthy: “‘Cause everything you’ve probably seen/Is not what it seems, life is a dream…/Take my hand, I’ll understand/Even though I’m blind.” At one point, Cee-Lo even growls, “Rock…roll.”
Only a couple of Cee-Lo Green’s cuts rise above novelty. The relatively straightforward “Big Ole Words (Damn)” lets the rapper show off his skills and demonstrate that geography is irrelevant to rocking a microphone: “Now I can offer an extension, or compare comprehension/I’m in a classroom of my own, I’m too far gone for competition/Yet I’m never obnoxious with my obvious ambition/Perfectly imperfect is my dimensions, definitions/I engage and my pen pierce the page ’til it bleeds of my intentions,” Cee-Lo proclaims. “I don’t want to hear nobody else say niggas from the goddamn South can’t rhyme.” “One for the Road” proves the point again, matching Cee-Lo’s braggadocio to vivid lyricism: “I have millenniums of materials and rivers of rhythm/An entire ocean of emotion that’s enlightened to swim in…/Oh his way with those words I want seconds and thirds/Oh, hush, that’s awful kind of you, you making me blush/I can use some competition but they not making me much.” Perhaps the most revealing thing about these songs is that Cee-Lo is actually at his best when he’s doing what every other rapper does: rapping.
It’s impossible to listen to Cee-Lo Green and not think of Cee-Lo’s fellow Atlantans in OutKast. Perhaps more than any other rap group, OutKast has pushed the hiphop envelope with its eccentric production choices and styles of flow. Yet the members of OutKast have never made an album that so explicitly lauds their own status as innovators. They don’t have to make a song establishing themselves as freaks, because any idiot with one of their CDs can deduce it from their music. This is the real flaw of Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections: It distrusts its audience and thus consistently restates the obvious. A truly unusual album wouldn’t have to keep reminding us of how weird it is. For that matter, neither would a truly unusual rapper. CP