Anyone coming to the new Goodie Mob album is likely to know two things:
1) This is technically a "reunion" album, since the Goodies broke up after 1999's disastrously ill received World Party album.
2) It's not a complete reunion, as one fourth of the group -- Cee-Lo Green -- is absent. He's got his own solo career, with two fairly successful solo albums and a slew of critical accolades under his belt.
So, there are two strikes against One Monkey Don't Stop No Show before the plastic wrap even comes off the package. Reunion discs are almost routinely lame -- with the sole exception of New Order's Get Ready, I can't think of a one that hasn't disappointed. The last big hip-hop reunion, the supposedly reborn NWA, never even got off the ground (save for one or two lackluster tracks recorded with Snoop Dogg filling the shoes of the late Eazy-E). Furthermore, although it's possible for groups to continue successfully sans a founding member, it's usually not a good sign when said absent member was widely considered to be the most charismatic and talented member.
But still, I was pleasantly surprised to see that with One Monkey..., the remaining members -- Khujo, Big Gipp, and T-Mo -- do an admirable job of bucking these discouraging trends. Its hardly a classic on par with 1995's Soul Food or 1998's underrated Still Standing, but it's a solid effort from a consistently interesting group. If it seems occasionally imbalanced, that's only to be expected considering the disorienting circumstances.
The album opens, after the prefatory "Synopsis", with "God I Wanna Live". This track is an immediate classic, featuring a subtle bass undercarriage accentuated by spare handclaps and tinkling organ noodles. The continuous refrain "God I wanna live to be an old man / But I understand / If you take me / You don't hate me / oh no no no" underscores the interplay between melancholic spirituality and righteous frustration that has always lain at the heart of their best music. Anyone who was afraid of Cee-Lo's absence and additionally wary of the propitious circumstances surrounding their reunion will find their qualms assuaged here. It's obvious that the Goodie Mob have every intention of reclaiming their place on the mixtapes of thoughtful 'heads across the nation.
But, of course, after a subdued opening gambit, they let it all hang out with the sublimely crunk "123 Goodie". It's got a beat that bounces like a rubber band, and enough catchy chorus lines to keep the club ringing for hours. In the space of just two songs, the Goodies almost succeed in dispelling any lingering doubts as to whether they could still compete in this strange world of hip-hop, circa 2004.
"Shawty Wanna Be a Gangsta" has one of the more subtle grooves on the album, a slithering slab of pseudo-70s funk held together by some surprisingly strong rock guitar work (I didn't find a credit for whoever played the axe on this track -- the production is credited to Ray Murray and Organized Noize). "In Da Streets" continues the cavalcade of crunk with a head-bobbin' club banger built on a slamming, metallic shuffle. Unfortunately, the lyrical content for most of the club-oriented tracks on the album lacks the depth of the more subdued tracks. It's a revealing dichotomy.
I'm happy to report that the "One Monkey" motif that frames the album (and also inspires the hilarious cover photo), while obviously a reference to the absent Cee-Lo, is gratifyingly free of hostility or overt resentment. In fact, there's not really much reference to Cee-Lo at all (short of the obvious fact that his place in the band photo has been filled by a chimpanzee). I read through the entire liner notes and he isn't mentioned in any of the thanks or acknowledgments. Whatever transpired between the remaining Goodies and Cee-Lo, it's been pretty smoothly brushed under the rug -- if you're looking for another "Dre Day", with Cee-Lo filling the role of Eazy-E, the Goodie Mob is much to polite to oblige. The beef is private.
The two members of OutKast represent another significant absence. It seems like every Dungeon Family album since time immemorial has featured members of OutKast and Goodie Mob interacting freely, but One Monkey... is noticeably absent of any appearances by Big Boi or Andre 3000. Still, the DF Crew is well represented by stalwarts such as Bonecrusher, Sleepy Brown, and Big Rube (to name a few).
If I had one wish for the hip-hop nation, it would be for someone to figure out that almost every hip-hop album can afford to be trimmed by a good 20-30 minutes. This one is no exception. Not without reason is Nas's Illmatic regarded as a masterpiece: it's only 10 tracks long. There's not an inch of fat on the whole damn disc. One Monkey... starts to wear about seven or eight tracks in, after the initial burst of enthusiasm subsides into a stream of low-tempo filler tracks (yeah, I know, every track is someone's favorite, but they still sound like filler to me). Unfortunately, like a lot of rap groups, the default setting for a lot of this filler seems to be the kind of lazy gangsta posturing that groups like the Goodie Mob were supposed to put an end to in the first place. Nihilistic tracks like "It Ain't Nothin For Us" don't really jibe well with the contemplative mood of tracks like "God I Wanna Live".
Thankfully, the album picks up again towards the end with "Big City", a techno-fried jolt of electricity fueled by DJ Speedy's scratches and stuttering marching drums. "What You See" is a randy R&B-oriented track buoyed by Melanie "Melba" Smith's smooth chorus vocals.
The album ends on a high note with "Play Your Flutes", which also serves as the album's first single. It's the kind of effortless, slightly jazzy funk that the Southern school of hip-hop has always excelled in, but that has been overshadowed in recent years by the rise of the club-oriented crunk style. It's a fitting end to a conflicted album. "I hope our lyrics help somebody who might need inspiration," they rap, and it's hard not to believe they mean it, even if their words sometimes belie their intentions.
Atlanta has a tendency to breed rappers whose styles marry the proverbial best of both worlds -- high-minded lyrical content with club-savvy beats. One Monkey Don't Stop No Show sees the Goodie Mob back in surprisingly good form, having produced a far better album than most would have predicted, given the circumstances. If it feels oddly rough and incomplete in places, we can hardly blame that on these three stoic survivors.