Cee Lo Green is a storefront preacher who moonlights as a mack daddy, or maybe it’s the other way around. His upper range is all passion, but when he reaches down low, there’s this sharp bite that, at its best, can deliver you some Otis Redding, a little Jackie Wilson. He can soothe your soul, rock your world, whisper sweet nothings in your ear, and, if need be, kick somebody’s ass. But above all, he’s a nice guy. A really nice guy. A gentleman. You pick that up even over the phone. He’s soft-spoken, reflective, generous in spirit, and willing to speak from the heart, even if you’re not entirely sure where he’s going or how he’s getting there.
Above all else, though, Green is one of the best singers of the hip-hop generation, right up there with Anthony Hamilton and D’Angelo. But unlike either of those guys, he’s notoriously difficult to pin down, neither a straight-up soul purist nor noticeably neo-anything. Add to the equation that he’s bounced between various groups (critically beloved Southern-rap titans Goodie Mob, commercially beloved pop titans Gnarls Barkley) and his own underrated solo stuff (including this year’s imminent smash The Lady Killer), and it’s clear he’s struggled to establish his true identity—or maybe it’s just that his fans have struggled to figure it out. If he were white, this wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s easier for folks to hold black artists to some sort of purity/litmus test.
As you’d expect, this leaves the man himself a bit exasperated, all this pigeonholing and genre-based apprehension. “I believe that our communities and our culture—music itself becomes a product of that environment,” Green explains. “I believe that there are concentration camps, and that’s probably going to be something controversial, but I’m saying it to say that we’ve been herded together. That the crab-in-a-barrel mentality comes from that. It’s been localized. We’ve become very fond of that fear of the unknown. That fear becomes fundamental, you know what I’m saying? ‘I’d rather fit in here than stand out there.’ It’s not my mentality. I’m fearless.”
That much became evident in 2006, when Gnarls Barkley, his absurdly high-profile duo with producer Danger Mouse, dropped “Crazy,” the whodathunkit pop-smash single that gave Green what he’d never had before: a Grammy nomination, international No. 1s, ridiculous ubiquity, and the motivation, after two critically hailed but poor-selling solo albums—2002’s Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and 2004’s Cee-Lo Green . . . Is the Soul Machine (somewhere along the line, he lost the hyphen)—to be all he could be. “Of course I’m more accustomed to moderate success, but milestone accomplishments and critical acclaim—I knew that’s enough incentive to continue on,” he says. “It’s all that I am. I have to go further and go forward. In faith that my vision will be clear.” All that Gnarls Barkley money isn’t half-bad, either. “No,” he agrees, laughing. “Not at all.”
It remains to be seen if The Lady Killer will continue his hot streak, but it should—it’s one of the best records of the year, and also his most commercial, and that’s not an insult. He plays it straight, or as straight as you can play it when your lead single is “Fuck You,” the feel-good kiss-off song to end all kiss-off songs, one that Green acknowledges is both “very noticeable” and a “golden opportunity to say ‘fuck you’ out loud.” His tongue is now so far into his cheek I swear it’s poking out of the receiver. As the title suggests, the record finds him taking on the persona of a dangerous but oh-so-dreamy seducer who loves ’em, leaves ’em, possibly kills ’em, and then regrets it all later. (Maybe not the loving part.) It’s a familiar trope, but he is wise enough not to wear it out, and other than the intro and outro, only the atmospheric “Bodies” (“They say that chivalry is dead/Then why is her body in my bed?”) gets all noir-y on your ass.
Plus, the musical reference points are familiar. The lay-your-head-on-my-pillow gentleness of “Old Fashioned.” The delicious exuberance and Tamla-Motown backbeat of “Cry Baby.” The disco-nights grandeur (replete with Love Unlimited strings) of “Bright Lights Bigger City.” The Man From U.N.C.L.E. soul-a-billy twang of “Love Gun.” Screw dancing in the streets—I was dancing in the shower. Yet for all the sweat and sexiness, The Lady Killer is romantic—chaste, even. Yes, even that song. No bitches. No “Do Me” posturing. There isn’t a freaky girl to be found anywhere. Is it any wonder Green doesn’t consider the club to be the ideal venue for his music? He’s way too adult for all that silliness, all those anonymous Auto-Tune hookups. Instead, he’s written a manual on how to both break and mend someone’s heart. And say “Fuck You,” repeatedly, with class.