One of pop music’s biggest Cinderella stories in recent memory has been that of the man born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, better known to the public as Cee Lo Green, or simply Cee Lo. After debuting as a member of the pioneering Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob in the mid-’90s, the MC/singer spent a decade as something of a cult figure, widely respected for his talent but scarcely an icon on the level of his old friends in Outkast. Then, Cee Lo sang two of the biggest pop hits of the past few years—Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 breakthrough “Crazy” and his 2010 solo smash “Fuck You”—and emerged as an unlikely pop star.
Turn on the TV, and you’ll probably flip past Cee Lo: in 7Up commercials, starring in two different shows (as a coach/judge on NBC’s hit The Voice and as the host of Talking To Strangers on Fuse), making a cameo on Parenthood, appearing on countless award shows. He was even parodied on Saturday Night Live, perhaps the ultimate confirmation of his household name status. During this media blitz, he also recently scored the biggest R&B radio hit of his long career—and the amazing part is that it isn’t “Fuck You.”
“Fool For You” featuring Melanie Fiona is one of six songs that’s been released as a single from Cee Lo Green’s 2010 solo album The Lady Killer. “Fuck You” peaked at No. 2, while none of the other five have even entered the Hot 100. But “Fool For You” peaked at No. 13 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart last week (before sinking four spots this week), making it the biggest urban radio hit Cee-Lo has ever had as a solo artist, featured performer or member of a group.
Cee Lo’s previous highest mark on the R&B chart was actually one of his first—Goodie Mob’s debut single “Cell Therapy” reached No. 17 in 1995. And in the 16 years since, he’s only intermittently made even a minor impact on R&B chart, even with his recent pop hits. “Fuck You”‘s R&B peak was a humble No. 57, and “Crazy” only got to No. 53. It’s odd to think that someone so famous and so beloved for both his soulful singing and his distinctive rapping has had such little presence on hip-hop and R&B radio.
Before “Cell Therapy,” Cee Lo and the rest of Goodie Mob made their first single chart appearance guesting on Outkast’s 1994 single “Git Up, Git Out,” which peaked at No. 59 on the R&B chart (a few years later, the similarly raspy-voiced Macy Gray did her best Cee Lo impression, interpolating his hook from the Outkast track for her debut single “Do Something,” which reached No. 63). But while Outkast were becoming the most successful group southern hip-hop had ever seen, their Dungeon Family compatriots in Goodie Mob remained comparatively unheralded, going gold but never platinum. Over the course of the ’90s, they released three albums and several singles, but none of them approached the peak of “Cell Therapy” (the closest, “Soul Food,” reached No. 31).
By the turn of the century, though, Cee Lo had already begun to be seen as Goodie Mob’s breakout star, more for his singing than for his rapping. He appeared on multiple albums by Chicago rapper Common, duetted with Lauryn Hill on Santana’s 1999 blockbuster Supernatural, and provided backup vocals for TLC’s megahit “Waterfalls” (technically the biggest R&B hit he’s been involved with, although I’m not counting it, since he was not a featured artist). And so somewhat inevitably, Cee Lo soon went solo and split off from from Goodie Mob, who subsequently made one album without him, and have since come back together for an upcoming reunion album.
2002’s Cee Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections featured the minor hit “Closet Freak” (which, oddly, he’s now shown recording nine years later in his recent 7Up commercial). 2004’s Cee Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine yielded another, the great Timbaland collaboration “I’ll Be Around.” But the R&B chart peaks of those songs were No. 56 and No. 52, respectively, right in the same range that “Crazy” and “Fuck You” would land in years later. During this period, his biggest successes on urban radio were singing hooks on singles by Miami rapper Trick Daddy: 2002’s “In Da Wind” reached No. 28. and 2005’s “Sugar (Gimme Some)” reached No. 36. “Sugar” was also Cee Lo’s introduction to the Top 40 as an featured artist, peaking at No. 20 on the Hot 100 a year before “Crazy” blew up.
Later in 2005, “Don’t Cha,” a song Cee Lo wrote and produced for Outkast backup singer Tori Alamaze, was re-recorded as the career-launching hit for the Pussycat Dolls; it reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 (it also hit No. 8 on the R&B chart, joining “Waterfalls” as the second time Cee Lo has had a top ten hit on the chart as an unbilled backup vocalist). Still, Cee Lo wasn’t seen as a serious hitmaker quite yet—his collaborative album with producer Jazze Pha was shelved after one unsuccessful single, and after Cee Lo appeared on the 2004 Twista track “Hope,” the song was re-recorded with Faith Evans for a 2005 single release. It wasn’t until Cee Lo linked up with indie rap producer Danger Mouse that he ended up with the unexpected hit that set his current career trajectory in motion.
In July, I wrote about how Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” was one of the few songs in recent memory to appear on a wide variety of Billboard charts, from pop to R&B to alternative. And I noted then that Cee Lo was one of the only people to have made two of those songs, with “Crazy” and “Fuck You.” But the huge, diverse audiences for those songs only further underlined what minor blips they both were on urban radio. “Crazy” was not particularly urban-sounding, while “Fuck You” was firmly rooted in R&B traditions, albeit ones from 40 years ago.
Personally, I always thought the chintzy Motown pastiche of “Fuck You” cheapened Cee-Lo’s soulful vocals, and that the Bruno Mars-penned lyric was no less obnoxious and lightweight than Mars’s own “The Lazy Song.” I’d always hoped that Cee Lo’s newfound stardom would clear the way for him to sing something more worthy of his voice, and for my money “Fool For You” is that song. The track also features lush backing harmonies by Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, and the single version turns it into an electrifying duet with up-and-coming R&B songstress Melanie Fiona (the Billboard entry credits the song as featuring “Melanie Fiona or Philip Bailey,” but that’s a misleading error—Bailey’s vocals are on both versions).
Early in the promotional cycle for The Lady Killer, Cee Lo made some overt plays for R&B radio that were less successful. After 50 Cent freestyled over “Fuck You,” that version of the track was released by Cee Lo’s label as an official remix. The follow-up single was a remix of “Bright Lights, Bigger City” featuring a verse by rapper-of-the-moment Wiz Khalifa, but the song went nowhere on urban or pop radio. “Fool For You” was also remixed for a single release, but Melanie Fiona is hardly a major star, and her only hit, “It Kills Me,” is over two years old. So “Fool,” which was virtually an afterthought in the marketing plan for The Lady Killer, made its climb slowly and gradually on the strength of the song itself, reaching its peak after 28 weeks on the chart, and a full year after the album hit stores.
Despite the fact that “Fuck You” is not Cee Lo’s first major hit and he’s now fairly famous and recognizable beyond that one song, there’s still a pretty large gap between his single and album sales. “Fuck You” is four times platinum, but The Lady Killer hasn’t even gone gold, which is the kind of discrepancy that is typical of goofy pop-rap acts like LMFAO and Flo Rida. Cee-Lo is clearly a more substantial talent; perhaps the novelty of “Fuck You” doesn’t put that fact across as well as a simple, powerful soul song like “Fool For You.” Maybe his slow breakthrough to urban radio will help shift a few more units of that album. It might even clear the way for Goodie Mob to finally score a bigger hit than “Cell Therapy,” although perhaps that’s a bit too much to hope for.