There’s a party going on at brother Cee-Lo’s again. Not as much voodoo and jazzy Afrocentricity fluttering about the atmosphere as on his wild and loopy solo debut, Cee-Lo Green and the Perfect Imperfections. This sophomore hump seems more concertedly crunk-da-fied, like we’re told you kids go for these days. Not that soapbox preacherman
Cee-Lo isn’t still trying to elevate heads out the lower depths they’ve been consigned to by college-educated minstrel-poseur genius Lil Jon—whose parents, I was recently told by an ATL native, are both neurosurgeons. But so what the hell? If everybody in hiphop was more than virtually real there’d be more funerals than beats around anyway.
The more erudite if less educated Cee-Lo rhymes in paragraphs MLK and Booker T. Washington might approve. Having exited the Dungeon Family’s other heady gangstalicious hiphop band, Cee-Lo is still in pursuit of a place where the air is both purple and verdant, Saturnian rather than saturnine. To rummage through the Goodie Mob’s Dirty South Classics is to recognize that their debut, Soul Food, was one of the stellar one-offs in hiphop history, right up there with the Pharcyde’s and the Boogiemonsters’ debuts in showcasing feats of collective lyrical prestidigitation and dopebeat smarts never to be repeated. But the greatest-hits collection also makes utterly clear that Cee-Lo was destined to separate from the pack and go it alone by virtue of his sui generis sangin’ and MC’ing and his feverishly roughneck redeemer persona. On Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine, he comes back to us with a tad more pfunk and less funkadelica in his trunk. Meaning: hornier horns, more seductive synth-hooks, and fewer Hazelian guitar leads. He’s still about milking a groove as long as it keeps him in a ritualistic mood. This may or may not be your idea of long-playing fun. But hearing his Southern-fried sermonized crooning confirms how much he paved the way for Anthony Hamilton.
Truth is, Soul Machine has the misfortune of landing in the swampy shadows of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Hamilton’s Coming From Where I’m From. Resisting odious comparisons is therefore damn near impossible. As radical experimental hiphop originating under the Mason-Dixon, Soul Machine can’t match A3K and BB’s double whammy for songcraft, repeat satisfaction, risk-taking, or ripping apart the fabric of space and time. And as a sanctified soul man, Cee-Lo now appears to have been keeping holy-ghost-catching Hamilton’s place on the Otis Redding heir-apparent bench warm.
Critical ranking-and-filing aside however, there are chakra-smacking pleasures here that could only have come from an artist of Cee-Lo’s expansiveness. Like the gospel hocketing that boosts the Pharrell-guested “The Art of Noise” all the way to heaven. Like the township brass that gives “My Kind of People” a grazing-in-the-grass languor. Like Cee-Lo’s ferociously baroque double-time rhyming with Ludacris in tow on “Childz Play.” The soul moves dropped on “All Day Love Affair” are anything but neophyte. And “I Am Selling Soul” also sells soul-house while making the always useful distinction between brokering the spirit of music and brewing beats for dollars, guaranteeing its status as a Sunday-morning favorite at Shelter and like-minded palladia. And when the track downshifts into a melancholic halftime session, Cee-Lo weighs in with a lament that gets my vote for rhyme of the hour: “It’s critical how convincing I can be with a camera pointed at me/But really sometimes rapping feels like tapping to make a cracker happy/But when the DAT plays and the beat gets to bumping like adolescent acne/It’s kinda sad/It’s showtime!/My sentiments exactly.”