...is The Soul Machine
ndie kids in this country have always had an uneasy relationship with Hip-Hop. Part lingering assumption, part lack of shared urban experience, they’ve often been disoriented by its grimy, inner-city splatters. Its brand of alienation and outrage, though sentiments quite familiar to the indie crowd, rarely have settled easily on their ears. The sounds are just too blunt and acute for comfort (exception to the rule: the Beastie Boys, for obvious reasons). In the past couple of years however, as gangsta rap has fallen hard, Hip-Hop has reinvigorated itself with the funky grind of its roots, looking back fondly at Parliament records, Prince’s early electronica experiments, the gritty funk of James Brown and the schmaltzy soul of Isaac Hayes. In the process, it seems also to have rediscovered its sense of humor and settled into a state of mutual curiosity with the mop-haired set.
The obvious example of this trend was last year’s omnipresent Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. From its release in September to about two months ago, it was the wallpaper album of this young decade, plastering its glossy reflection across both mass- and indie-media and delighting formerly polarized listeners from teen mallrats to avant-garde-holies. Well, with a more succinct drollery and a better sense of studio control, Cee-Lo Green has outdone his fellow Atlantans on Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine.
Sure, his voice sounds like a castrato Al Green whose nether-removal was only partially completed, but after a few listens, his unusual croak/croon is immaterial. Where the willful eccentricity of his debut album was probably released too early for full appreciation, the music world should be drooling for this record. Soul Machine is a burgeoning blast of every grimy funk track and Sunday-smoothed gospel hymn that preceded it. Slamming through dusty J.B.’s grooves (“Soul Machine”), Tijuana soul (“My Kind of People”) and backyard-barbecue soul (“All Day Love Affair”), Cee-Lo makes soft allusions to his sense of R & B history without much outright assimilation. With the aid of a slew of must-have producers, including The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Organized Noize to name a few, organic-sounding drums punch up against programmed beats in a manner that has never seemed more natural. The tiresome filler skits of similar albums are cut away, and the album’s eighteen tracks rarely seem overwrought. They bounce, thrust and grind through a slew of fleshy turns and shifts in direction, blending liquid-smooth into one of the year’s best albums.
While Cee-Lo performs quite well solo, his friends in high places pop up across the album and give it greater rhythmic and lyrical breadth. “I’ll Be Around” sees Timbaland contributing a crushing tribal beat augmented by blunted horn samples. Snagging Al Green’s sentiments of ’73 in the repeated chorus, Cee-Lo swaggers to one of the album’s best floor-fillers. With a sneeringly addictive xylophone roll and a top-heavy, stumbling pace, “Childz Play” combines Cee-Lo’s choppy delivery with the oil-slicked boasts of Ludacris. I haven’t played this song once without doubling back and turning the volume up past legal levels.
After these high points, the album hits a few spots that aren’t as insistent. While Cee-Lo claims on “Die Trying” that “I could be a pretty great thug / But it wouldn’t compare to a great me”, he can’t consistently follow his own advice. The back-to-back gangster smackdowns of “Scrap Metal” and “Glockapella”, whether ironic contortions of gangster rap crowing or not, break the streaming, all-inclusive charm of the rest of the album. The haunting synth tones and militaristic beats turn acidic. Soured by useless vitriol, they become infantile back-alley threats, and they force a separation from the album that takes a few minutes to reclaim.
Still, with the after-glowing gleam of “When We Were Friends”, recover it does. The placid Gospel and Soul of the final tracks leave you in a glorious stupor with little memory of his “battle raps”. They close an album that forces thoughts of the thawing spring and our emergence from another winter’s daze. It still looks like the musical schism in Outkast will only widen, and as the boys are off contributing to film soundtracks for 70s canine cartoons, Cee-Lo Green has quietly usurped the throne as the new king of the Dirty South’s odd digicrunk strut. This spring, indie kids and Hip-Hop heads of old rejoice. We’ve reached common ground.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: APRIL 5 - APRIL 11