One of those rare miracles of pop music that graces us from time to time, Cee-Lo Green’s joyous “Fuck You” hit the ground running upon its late-summer release this year with a momentum that is staggering even in this instant access, Internet-meme age. A word-of-mouth hit even with a title, chorus, and several key lyrics that cannot be aired on radio or MTV, “Fuck You” has vaulted such possibly-no-longer-existent boundaries (Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal rather astutely referred to the song as “post-censorship”, a demonstration the old media guard’s circa 2010 irrelevance) to inspire, in its brief history, a William Shatner rendition, an impending (though inevitably watered-down) Glee cover (by Gwyneth Paltrow), and perhaps the only release date bump in recent memory that wasn’t inspired by an early album leak, but rather good old fashioned demand. Even the radio edit, titled “Forget You”, though hardly a reasonable substitute for the true version, exists as part of the song’s sly subversion of what currently constitutes censor-worthy language — its cleaned-up chorus basically exists solely for listeners to belt the proper “fuck you!” lyric overtop of.
Still, the relevance, however playful, of “Fuck You” as a readymade cultural artifact need not detract from its sheer brilliance as a pop song. Critics were right to jump on the comparisons to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” immediately, as “Fuck You” similarly screams instant classic not simply for its deceptive novelty appeal (“Hey Ya” was a rather pained ode to divorce and generational shifts on romantic expectations, remember), but for simply how good it feels. Even minus the shout-along chorus, the song is constructed out of almost non-stop hooks, from its Motown piano intro to the hip geekery of “I guess he’s an Xbox and I’m more Atari”, the hilariously mocking call-and-response backing vocals (including a winking riff on Kanye’s “Gold Digger”), and the cartoon-soul wails of “whhhhhhyyy!” towards the end. As an angry kiss-off to an ex and her new beau, it might be the most warmly empathetic ever recorded, even gracious in key moments (“With a pain in my chest I still wish you the best”), an attempted lashing out that its singer quickly realizes he really hasn’t the heart for, resorting to playground taunts as a good humored mask for temporary inner turmoil. As presented here, Cee-Lo’s register as the cuddliest “fuck you”s ever uttered.
For as much as “Fuck You” represents commercial pop music’s occasional attempts at taking actual risks (and in this case, succeeding), “Fuck You” remains just as much an example of a song tapping into the popular zeitgeist as just about any other chart single of the moment. Find this not in its gender politics, faint though undeniably present as they are, or even in the loaded meaning of “I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough” (which Carl Wilson brilliantly, if creatively, attempted to unpack in his own analysis of the song), but rather in Cee-Lo’s participation of one of the prevailing trends of post-millennial pop music: nostalgia. Undoubtedly, the song’s musically seamless pastiche of classic Motown and soul sounds is part of the joke, as if revealing the true sentiment at the core of decades worth of heartbroken pop songs, but “Fuck You” also comes along at a time when such a sonic throwback is not at all out of the ordinary. With a new crop of British blue-eyed soul singers like Amy Winehouse and Duffy finding serious critical and commercial success, barely legal indie rockers like Best Coast and Surfer Blood taking simultaneous cues from ’50s teen idols, ’60s surf rock, and ’80s new wavers, and genre-bending weirdos like Janelle Monae utilizing at least four decades worth of popular styles as her own amorphous sonic playground, the sounds of the past are currently as much a part of the panorama of 21st century pop music as such young movements as hip-hop and electronica. Much of what is brilliant about “Fuck You” resides in how it drapes itself in the guise of Temptations or Supremes classic before proceeding to dismantle it from the inside out, but the guise itself is nothing new even in 2010.
Which is exactly the thing, it turns out, that makes The Lady Killer itself such a troubling listen. Cee-Lo Green has described the album as his shot at “picking up where Barry White left off”, and The Lady Killer is accordingly an album whose sole ambition appears to be to mire itself in the past as authentically as possible. As a throwback, it is indeed impeccable, rife with Spectorian horns and sweeping string sections. Likewise, Cee-Lo’s commanding helium croon is note-perfect; he is one of the few modern practitioners of classic-style soul who could have easily had a shot at competing with the giants in the old days. The distinctly post-modern cheekiness of “Fuck You” aside, the club-ready rave synths of “Bright Lights Bigger City” and the subtle processed drum patter backing up “No One’s Gonna Love You” serve as the only real giveaways that The Lady Killer isn’t a genuine ’70s article. Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey even shows up at one point (on the jerky “Fool for You”) to offer accompaniment and, one imagines, symbolic approval.
Where The Lady Killer gives itself away, though, is in Cee-Lo’s inability to maintain the consistency of his premise. While he gives us some uncannily Barry-like moments on the swoony “I Want You” or the nearly litigation-worthy “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” carbon copy of “Cry Baby”, Cee-Lo presents the whole of The Lady Killer as more of a scattershot of classic styles than an actual attempt to replicate any one particular artist or mode. As a collection of songs, such style-hopping actually manages to keep things more interesting than they would have been had Cee-Lo remained content to languish. Particularly charming are the sunny, ’60s-style horn swing of “Satisfied” (a bit like “Fuck You” played straight), the sweetly hokey ’50s balladry of “Old Fashioned”, and the frankly gorgeous “No One’s Gonna Love You”. Better still is the smoothly melodic “Wildflower”, mostly for how Cee-Lo manages to turn an obvious (and very ’70s) sexual metaphor into something genuinely romantic, a lyric promising to “hold her with both of my hands then put her right on the table when I get her home” intermingling carnality with a vision of domestic bliss that is nearly unheard of in pop music.
Unfortunately, “Wildflower” does not turn out to be all that indicative of what to expect from the rest of The Lady Killer. What is most glaringly absent from the bulk of the album is the sneaky sense of genre-bending and unpredictability that Cee-Lo brought to “Fuck You”, not to mention his innovative work with Gnarls Barkley. In fact, this album’s biggest stylistic sore thumb, the otherwise effectively menacing “Bodies”, feels like something of a leftover from a Gnarls album. The problem isn’t with the execution, but with the premise itself; having teased us with the paradoxically reverential and transgressive “Fuck You”, Cee-Lo then delivers an album that feels relatively safe, even complacent in light of pop’s current fixation on remembrance of things past. It is a thoroughly likeable little trifle of a record, valuable even if only for having produced what is undeniably The Single of 2010, but one wishes that Cee-Lo had not been nearly as content to work so comfortably within the confines of his considerable range and talent.