Music doesn’t just soothe the savage beast: It can save the mortal soul. Just ask Cee-Lo Green.
A couple years ago, the gifted rapper and singer hit the skids. He’d released two acclaimed solo albums, but his label, Arista, folded and left his singular funkadelic muse homeless. Simultaneously, he was getting a divorce from the mother of his two children. On “Just a Thought,” a track on the debut album by the eclectic, history-making duo Gnarls Barkley, Green sings that he was low enough to contemplate suicide.
Then a friend sent him rescue music from the blues.
“Danger Mouse’s production was so classic, it caused me to be introspective,” Green say, speaking over the phone from London in his crushed-velvet voice. “It took me back to my childhood. The reason I knew I could continue and go forward was because those pieces of music let me know that he was there, that he had gone through it. I immediately knew I wasn’t alone; his company was all that I needed. We became brothers.”
Those songs didn’t just resuscitate Green: They became the runaway left-field album of 2006. “St. Elsewhere” has busted global records, knocked down border walls, leapt over bumbling executives, and saved a few lives. By messing with the same old fame game, and simply making phenomenal 21st-century soul music, Gnarls Barkley are not just superstars: They’re superheroes.
Quite an accomplishment for two young men in costumes.
Gnarls Barkley is the unlikely love child of two restless artists. Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, 29, is an electronic whiz kid who was quietly building an underground reputation for his edgy hip-hop tracks when one of his musical experiments - 2003’s mashup of the Beatles’ white album and Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” - blew up. Although establishment bigwigs tried to squash the illicit “Grey Album,” the Internet made it a hit. Danger Mouse was soon a much-sought-after producer; his work on the Gorillaz’ album “Demon Days” was nominated for a Grammy.
Green, 32, born Thomas Callaway, was part of the seminal Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob and a member of the sprawling Dungeon Family. His `02 solo debut, “Cee-Lo Green and his Perfect Imperfections,” and `04’s follow, “Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine,” revealed him to be a bit of a mad scientist too, imaginatively injecting acid-rock, folk, pop, and gospel into hip-hop’s sometimes staid formula.
Together they created a beautiful monster.
“I didn’t know who was going to get that record,” Green says. “Yet again I just went with my heart. I’m honest, I’m real, and I expect real to resonate. I’m just as amazed as you that such an album is so commercially celebrated.”
The songs on “St. Elsewhere” range from a cover of the Violent Femmes’ new wave blues “Gone Daddy Gone,” to the finger-popping `60s pop of “Smiley Faces,” to the ghoulish “Necromancer.” Some people have described the style as mash-up (the electronic fusion of two disparate genres), but these are songs that come not from two places, but from one heart. Burton and Green both grew up loving punk, rock, R&B, and hip-hop. Perhaps the title of the opening track describes the sound best: “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.”
The song “Crazy” is an instant classic: Cee-Lo, who cut his vocals in one take, sings with the ethereal voice of Al Green, while Danger Mouse tweaks strings and electronics. “Crazy” went to No. 1 in England before the album was even released, based entirely on downloads. It continues to scale charts around the world. Mind-blowing videos for it and “Gone Daddy Gone,” and big-band live shows where the musicians dress up as movie characters (also the only way they’ll have their photo taken), continue to spread the go-go gospel. This month, Gnarls is on the cover of Spin.
“We knew that there were going to be highs and lows associated with this project but we weren’t really certain about how high the highs would be,” Green says. “They are Mt. Kilimanjaro at this point.”
“Crazy,” like the album, is deep. Green sings about the emotional power of temporary insanity, about the need to take stands and risk love and brave collapse: “My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on the limb,” he croons, then drops his voice almost wistfully: “All I remember is thinking I want to be like them.”
“I mean going out on the limb to push the envelope creatively,” says Green. “I think of my mother and father, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, firemen, policemen, soldiers, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix: to martyr, to go out there first.”
Beneath all the dope samples and shimmering sounds, “St. Elsewhere” reads like the confessional, hallucinatory poetry of a genius having a breakdown. Green - short, bulky, covered in tattoos - has talked about having a thug past, of having robbed people. “St. Elsewhere” is on a whole `nother tip.
“I just knew it would be a bit of a shock value to come out of my mouth. Or to talk about suicide or depression, out of any black man’s mouth. Because we’re so macho. But it’s all bulls. Everybody’s human. I can appreciate everyone trying to be strong, but vulnerability is also a strength.
“A lot of the times hip-hop seems to make angst like it’s something fashionable. But it’s actually very traumatic, or it can be. I’ve experienced and endured a pain so deep that I could not rap it just for the sake of entertaining. My pain runs deep enough to sing.”
Green says success has healed his wounds. “I’m rich and famous and now everything’s great. I’m living proof of why patience is a virtue.”
Green and Danger Mouse are like two grown boys made so confident by the chemistry of their teamwork that they can play with their success. Like their name, a surf-rat takeoff on the basketball player Charles Barkley, they’re a joke - with a serious purpose. The costumes - dressing up as characters in “Back to the Future,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Superman” - are their somewhat geeky end-run around the cult of personality.
“It was to deter any one particular demographic or audience from associating themselves directly with us as far as to say, `Well, they’re emo or they’re alternative.’ Then it was also to distract the attention away from us per se and let people concentrate on the music.”
They belong to the world now, but Gnarls Barkley has deep Southern roots (Burton spent formative years in Georgia). Like their compatriots OutKast, they show that the home of crunk has a brain. Green has spent a lot of time in Miami, recording with local heroes Trick Daddy and Mayday! He wants to make the relationship “more formal. I love Miami.”
In the meantime, Gnarls Barkley will continue their derring-do, making contemporary pop music that’s meaningful too.
“You do see a bit of your own uncertainty and vulnerability, a lot of humanity or humility in that record. And none of us are exempt from either of those personality traits. We do believe we’re doing music for the people by the people.”
// Notes from the Road
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