Swearing aside, a genuinely smooth pop record that leaves us wishing he’d kept some grit from the old days
Though not until very recently a household name, [b]Cee-Lo[/b]’s voice has filled the cars, clubs and front rooms of millions thanks to the inescapable success of [a]Gnarls Barkley[/a]’s ‘[b]Crazy[/b]’ in 2006. But his overlooked solo career has largely been a footnote, despite the critical praise received by his 2002 debut, ‘[b]Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections[/b]’. Its wild, so-far-out-of-the-box-it’s-still-in-the-warehouse mix of psych, soul, hip-hop, jazz and rock sprawled well over an hour and scared both the public and [b]Cee Lo[/b]’s then-label Jive alike. When its 2004 follow-up ‘[b]…Is The Soul Machine[/b]’ suffered the same sales-to-praise disparity, label and artist bade farewell.
But then [b]Cee-Lo[/b]’s always worked best in the shadows. While his contemporaries [a]OutKast[/a] pushed boundaries and received plaudits thanks to their ear for a pop hook, [b]Cee-Lo[/b] was busy in the sidelines working on some ‘[b]Dirty South[/b]’ music with Goodie Mob (of which he was a member from 1995-98). In the process, he not only helped name an aspect of his and [a]OutKast[/a]’s idiosyncratic style of Atlanta, Georgia hip-pop, but coined the term that would define the late ’90s and early ’00s: southern hip-hop, where [a]Timbaland[/a]/[a]Missy Elliott[/a], [a]OutKast[/a] and [a]NERD[/a]/[b]Neptunes[/b] became the region’s first global success stories.
‘[b]Crazy[/b]’ aside, it’s taken over 20 years for [b]Cee-Lo[/b] to come up with a true solo hit that ruled the charts. As anyone with access to YouTube will know, it appears that all he needed was a soulful voice and repeated swearing set to a jaunty tune. The resulting ‘[b]Fuck You[/b]’ to an ex-girlfriend and her new lover is a kiss-off song in the best tradition; and the biggest pop hit the South’s had since [a]OutKast[/a]’s ‘[b]Hey Ya[/b]!’.
So it seems that [b]Cee-Lo[/b]’s learned something from his pop excursions with Gnarls. At 14 tracks, ‘[b]The Lady Killer[/b]’ is by far his most focused solo album, ditching genre-hopping schizophrenia to embrace cinematic tropes. But, from the noir-ish spoken-word intro (in which he deems his name “[i]not important[/i]” and assures us he’s “[i]certainly not lawless[/i]”; canny remarks from a man presumably aware that the public may soon want to find out more about his street violence past); to ’70s cop show instrumental bursts; expansive string arrangements; and even a loose storyline, ‘[b]The Lady Killer[/b]’ doesn’t quite match the ‘perfect imperfections’ of [b]Cee-Lo[/b]’s gleefully unhinged past efforts.
Smoothing the edges includes all but eschewing his machine-gun-paced, helium-pitched rap flow in favour of largely playing the straight soul singer; yet [b]Cee-Lo[/b] the character remains as odd as he has been on albums that, in the past, have mixed spirituality with unbridled anger and joyous proclamations of being a “closet freak”. Here he explores male/female relationships in a way that roughly plays out as follows: goes partying (the Miami Vice synth-pop of ‘[b]Bright Lights Bigger City[/b]’); swears at ex; gets new girl (‘[b]Wildflower'[/b]’); dumps new girl (‘[b]Cry Baby[/b]’); finds a wrong ’un who fools him around (‘[b]Fool For You[/b]’); returns to first girl (‘[b]Old Fashioned[/b]’).
It’s all flawless in a string-laden soul way, but too clean an effort from a man who, in the past, has been so much more exciting by letting the grit remain. Only on ‘[b]Cry Baby[/b]’ do we get some real darkness when a roving-eye [b]Cee-Lo[/b] dumps his girlfriend before playing the victim himself. It’s hard to sympathise with, but at least shows that, from a man who spends a large part of the album proclaiming love and being the good guy, his flaws still remain; he just may find that there’s no way of making them translate into pop sales. But which is crazier: to continue to try and ignore those unglossy imperfections, or to return to the shadows?
Click here to get your copy of Cee-Lo Green’s ‘The Lady Killer’ from Rough Trade Shops.
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