Music

Cee-Lo Green: The Lady Killer

Jer Fairall

The man behind The Single of the Year plays it smooth but a little too safe on his accompanying full length.


Cee-Lo Green

The Lady Killer

Label: Elektra/Asylum
US Release Date: 2010-11-09
UK Release Date: 2010-11-08
Amazon
iTunes

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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