Art is where and how we speak to each other in tongues audible when ‘official’ language fails.
—Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior
If you ain’t really ready to say fuck your fears/ You are not alive.
Imagine a hybrid of Rev. Al Green, Bobby Womack, Rev. CL Franklin, Buddha, Sugar Foot (of the Ohio Players) chillin’ some place in the ATL with his shirt off and smokin’ a blunt, and singing Funkadelic riffs and you get the Cee-Lo Green aesthetic. Dare I borrow a conceit from Greg Tate, who once described Miles Davis as the black aesthetic, I would like to suggest that Cee-Lo is one of those rare artists who may indeed embody the fullest range of the black aesthetic (Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas Dorsey, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Prince, are a few of the musical performers who come to mind) . This brotha is simply on some ‘otha shit and has been since he debuted with Goodie Mob. But like so many of his generational peers, Cee-Lo thinks he needs hip-hop and true indeed, folks have been hard-pressed to cosign black musical genius to anything else in the contemporary moment, because hip-hop has seemingly become the sole artistic language-hegemony on the real-in which such genius can be conveyed (at least in the mainstream).
With market proven producers in the house this time around—Tim’s behind the boards for the infectious lead single “I’ll Be Around” and Chad and Pharrell are in the mix for two tracks—no doubt Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine will make the commercial moves that Cee-Lo’s debut Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (2002) didn’t. And this is not at all to suggest that Cee-Lo has sold his soul—no one will ever mistake him for Lil John, Ludicris, David Banner, or even Big Boi, even if his record label is taking the chance that you will (that’s the only reason you pay Tim and the Neptunes top-dollar to produce an artist who really doesn’t need them). I say all of this because, Cee-Lo is yet another reminder, that hip-hop, even in its best moments continues to sit at the feet of the traditions that birthed it—much the way soul music sat at the feet of traditional rhythm and blues and gospel, or jazz sat at the feet of the plantation blues and ragtime. And thus it’s always a shame when an artist, who is so fluent in those traditions—think about Outkast’s conversation with the Black Choral tradition on “B.O.B.” or Scarface’s sit-down with Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack (“Be Real Black”) on “On My Block”—plays to the market.
And playing to the suits and the radio programmers ain’t necessary a bad thing when you hear a track like “I’ll Be Around”. Though it is much less ambitious than “Closet Freak”, the brilliant lead single from His Perfect Imperfections, “I’ll Be Around” is easily some of the best production—gutbucket funk if you will—Timbaland has done in hip-hop (not counting his R&P—rhythm and pop forays) in some time. The breakout success of Lil Jon and Ludacris (Usher clearly took note) has confirmed that the “dirty, dirty” has redefined the hip-hop landscape and “I’ll Be Around” is a reminder that folk like Cee-Lo (“That’s quite an accent / See I’m from the South / Where some of the most beautiful things come out my mouth”) and Tim (“Here Comes Timbaland / I’m also from the South / I like them girls with big butts and golds in their mouth / And that’s how we do in these parts”) have been representin’ for the “dirty, dirty” well before it was fashionable (“ah what!?”).
And for Cee-Lo representin’ for the “dirty, dirty” is a life or death situation as he describes it on the plaintive “Die Trying” (a retort perhaps to those that think hip-hop is just about “gettin’ rich”). When Cee-Lo sings “See there’s no way and there’s no how / I can stop now / I’mma die tryin’, I’mma die tryin’”, it’s clear he ain’t singing just about the money he banking, but is literally singing about protecting and celebrating a way of life—a way of life that had been long disparaged in the face of black urban culture (“New York, New York, big city of dreams!”) being perceived as the essence of postmodern blackness. As he notes, “Before we came, being southern wasn’t somethin’ to claim / In fact wasn’t somethin’ to fly, it was somethin’ to blame / They gave us ‘dirty’ apparently an appropriate name.” A reminder that all those folk who now want to claim the genius of Outkast or lovingly remember when Cee-Lo still ran with Goodie (at one point he even includes MLK, Jr. in this mix), were the same folk who asked “who dem country niggas?” a decade ago. And Cee-Lo is all too cognizant of how notions of essentialized blackness plays out in the minds of the ghetto gatekeepers (“In the recent news the Source couldn’t find any microphones to rate me / Using words like ‘extreme’ and ‘alternative’ to equate me / Which is true I’m in a box with a view / But you still want to gate / I could be a pretty good thug, but it wouldn’t be a great me.”) He further expands on this theme on the sweet track “My Kind of People” (with Jazze Pha and Menta Malone), a broad response to black upper class elites (See Lawrence Otis Graham’s book of the same title) who often think of Cee-Lo Green and his “ilk” as not their “kind of people”.
The spiritual passion that Cee-Lo expresses on “Die Trying” is present throughout Cee-Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine. “The Art of Noise”, Cee-Lo’s collaboration with the Neptunes, features a smart sample of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes”. Though the song begins like a bad Nelly remix (an oxymoron perhaps), it is transformed into a testament to Cee-Lo’s passion, not for the game and the fame, but for life and art, which in his world, is so often one and the same. In the song’s bridge he admits “I used to feel that like God was gonna call me too soon / Have mercy if I seem to be heavy, I don’t mean to be heavy, wait I’m almost done / And God can truly work a miracle / Look at me, isn’t it obvious that I’m one”, speaking to both the heightened sense of mortality that has been a constant companion to the hip-hop generation (drive-bys, rapper profiling, crack, syr-rup, HIV, incarceration, 9-11, or as my man MED talks about “just too many dead black bodies”) and the belief that there is a duty to give voice to all of those demons.
When Cee-Lo begins the third verse of “The Art of Noise” by dropping a spiritual nod to “His Eye is On the Sparrow” (“I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free”), you understand that he is someone whose found his spiritual grounding in the world. This is evidenced in a song like “Die Trying”, where he boasts “I keep my feet on the ground and bring the sky to you” or on the track “I Am Selling Soul” where he claims “I am the music” and “I am your soul, music of your mind.” This latter track is also telling because it is one of the moments during ...Is the Soul Machine were Cee-Lo admits that even his spiritual rap is little more than a hustle, in a world where it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish real conviction from an attempt to capture a particular segment of the market. As the mood of the song shifts from spiritual ebullience to brooding introspection Cee-Lo admits that “there is no part of me that can’t be calculated into commodity.” More specifically he confesses that “really some times rapping feel like tapping to make a cracker happy” and cautions his peers that “whether you selling a dream, selling a scheme or playing a role, like it or not we selling souls.”
But tracks like “Die Trying”, “I Am Selling Soul”, and “The Art of Noise” don’t just represent Cee-Lo’s spiritual grounding in a world of dead rappers, shot nine times but not dead rappers, and reformed gangstas, but evidence of his fluency (flow in the real sense of the word) in a blackness that transcends hip-hop and every conceivable authenticator of contemporary urban culture. For example when Cee-Lo drops his spoken word joint “Sometimes”, it’s clear that his referent is less Saul Williams or Def Poetry Jam and more so JB doing “King Heroin”. Then, on the battle rap “Glockapella” he opens with a gender inflected version of Tata Vega “Sister”, a song that was featured in the cinematic version The Color Purple, as a reminder that even as he responds to those “who had the audacity to attack me”, it’s an act of love. In other words, shit’s gonna remain digitized as expressed in his witty play on the phrase a cappella. If Cee-Lo’s wit, musical innovation and expansive knowledge of black culture is ultimately his most powerful boast among folk who trade in hierarchies of designer foot-wear and boutique labels, then he hammers home the point closing out “Glockapella” with a rendition of P-Funk’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” The point is not whether or not cats been digging in mom and dad’s crates, but whether a cat can make use of those narratives in ways that add to the most brilliant moments within the tradition (hip-hop or otherwise)—it ain’t just about a funky sample.
Other standouts on ...Is the Soul Machine include “Let’s Stay Together”, a second collaboration with the Neptunes. Though at times Pharell and Chad seem little more than the cookie cutter producers of the moment, there are times, such as their first N.E.R.D. project or Jay-Z’s “Allure” (from The Black Album), where they push against the expected. To their credit, they don’t crowd Cee-Lo and surprisingly push him to unexpected places. On “Let’s Stay Together” (a moody rip off of the Al Green original), Cee-Lo does some of his best-sustained singing, as he is pushed towards the upper limits of his range. Essentially a duet between Cee-Lo and Pharrell (who at times sounds like a combination of Sly and Curtis in the chorus) “Let’s Get Together” allows the duo to be the crooners that they believe they should be. The ballads “All Day Love Affair” and “When We Were Friends” are both markedly more accomplished than any of the ballads featured on His Perfect Imperfections.
Don’t expect Cee-Lo to follow his ATLien colleagues Outkast and Usher to the top of the charts. He’s not built for that. He’s built for much more, like being the spirit of this thing we call hip-hop.