I heard somebody on the street call Cee-Lo “the fat motherfucker from OutKast” a few weeks ago. Cee-Lo is actually the fat motherfucker from Goodie Mob but that misrecognition sums up the Goodie situation. In the public’s mind and in Soundscan’s database, OutKast are the freaks of record, the recognized P-Funk licensees. Goodie Mob are OutKast’s friends, right? No—the Goodie Mob are in the Dungeon Squad? Or maybe they did that “Rosa Parks” song. No? That was OutKast?
Pour out a little for the Mob, widely believed to be dissolved, though they deny it in interviews. Over three albums, Goodie Mob have played 10,000 Maniacs to Andre and Big Boi’s R.E.M., less hook-minded but occasionally on-target collaborators following their friends through the high grass and letting a singular voice, in this case Thomas “Cee-Lo Green” Callaway, do most of the pedaling. (I’m not a Natalie Merchant fan, but the analogy didn’t work with Pylon because they were better than R.E.M. at the start and Love Tractor didn’t sing.)
Goodie Mob made a mark with their debut, Soul Food, in 1995, because their funk was elastic (though much Southern rap turned out to be similarly elastic, just like so many English rock drummers, mysteriously, could swing in 1970) and, more than anything, they had Cee-Lo. The sugar in the pill was always his—the churchy optimism leavening the grouchiness, the multi-tracked harmonies relieving oncoming rhyme fatigue, the musical detours to a world beyond keyboards and drum machines, and almost all the memorable rhymes. Try the undistinguished “Gutta Butta,” from Still Standing, an album with better tracks. Cee-Lo turns a tough luck set piece on its head by opting out of tough-luck teleology in the middle of a carjacking: “Well here, you can have it, goddamnit, if you want it that bad/You would try to take from me, my nigga, I ain’t no star/I value both of our lives more than this car.”
The Perfect Imperfections of Cee-Lo Green feels most like Sugarcube-less Björk, if we want a rock analogy. (Cee-Lo talks about Madness and the Doors in interviews, so why not?) One of many pleasant shocks comes halfway through “Big Ole Words,” a stripped-down showcase designed to reach anybody who thought the Dirty South was more bounce than concept: “When I first got my big break I said that I would never bend/Discredit my character to either keep up or contend/I am not like them at all and I cannot pretend.” Hey! We had to sit through the other dudes’ verses all this time? Track after track, Cee-Lo’s roomy, utopian heart blows up big enough to cast a long shadow over the Goodie Mob catalog. (A best-of would boost their profile nicely.)
Q-Tip’s Kamaal the Abstract and Joi’s Star Kitty’s Revenge triangulate Cee-Lo’s debut pretty well. All three artists take on production duties themselves after going through years of industry conflict. All are post-soul graduates uninterested in orthodoxy or digital sheen (read: have not been able to get Pharrell on the phone) but very interested in the aesthetic of the slow burn (works better in the long run—ask Caetano Veloso), live instruments (solves complicated promotion issue—ask Gorillaz) and ’70s funk (lucrative—ask Rhino). But Kamaal falls on the sword of bad taste (goddamn you, Creed Taylor!) and unchecked ambition (I am assuming he didn’t mean to sound like Bill Cosby when he sings). Joi’s album is much closer in spirit to Cee-Lo’s. Both are big on sex and vamps that substitute flavor for meat, sometimes well enough that you don’t feel hungry till later. Since Joi is married to Big Gipp and Cee-Lo’s in a band with him, maybe Gipp’s the secret. Or is it just Atlanta?
The Perfect Imperfections retains a slight edge over Star Kitty, probably because Cee-Lo doesn’t suffer from the sour anger that drags Joi’s album down (but men don’t ever have to clean up, do they?) and still ups the tempo for the dancefloor, like on “Suga Baby.” The liberation inherent in funk is always part of Cee-Lo’s plan. The funk is 3D Memphis on “El Dorado Sunrise,” mildly African on “Bad Mutha” and strongest of all on the minimalist numbers like “One for the Road,” where it’s just voice and pulse. And that goddamn voice, that resonant chest, those lived-in vocal cords? Rasping, gasping, bass with extra treble? Hip-hop! Soul! A bargain!
He gets bogged down in self-affirmation, yup, just like Alanis, but that’s America, and that’s the Baptist in him, too. You noticed that his rock is unconvincing. Who cares? There’s only one rock track. Dude is trying something, seen? Who he reminds me most of is ’80s Lou Reed. Both are confident men wagering their confidence on something bigger they haven’t found a voice for yet, unafraid of embarrassing themselves or you as they work it out. You cluck at the artlessness but before the navel-gazing turns you off, the firmness and commitment keep you locked in. The guy isn’t kidding and his pleasures aren’t fleeting—he’s worked that bit out. This is the opposite of styles for miles, and none of it is wasted, even when it fails. Cee-Lo wants you to follow him. If you don’t get there, it’s not because he abandoned you.
Cee-Lo plays S.O.B.’s May 5.