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Cee Lo Green explores new musical frontiers

The hip-hop artist's 'The Lady Killer' showcases his smooth vocals and his evolving sound.

November 15, 2010|By Ann Powers, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Reporting from New York —

Cee Lo Green stretched out his large, limber frame on a sofa in the penthouse suite of Manhattan's Marcel Hotel, receiving a visitor with a bewitching grin. He seemed, for a moment, like an exotic creature: a gryphon or a sphinx or a particularly mischievous reincarnation of the Buddha.

Looks can be deceiving. The 36-year-old Green enjoys dazzling people, but he is human and totally aware of how useful eccentricity can be.

"I am a rare occasion," he said, turning the word "rare" into a purring roar. "I think if everyone had known it was going be me who succeeded, they would have supported me a lot more. They would have known what to do with me a lot earlier. They just didn't know."

Since his days as a co-founder of the head-tripping Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob, Green has dealt with the music industry's attempts to squeeze his major talent into manageable packages. Goodie Mob helped invent the Dirty South sound that brought hip-hop into the 21st century; Green was the rapper-singer whose musical flow pointed to new styles of rhyming later picked up by the likes of Lil Wayne.

Green (born Thomas Callaway) made a few far-out solo albums after leaving Goodie Mob in 1999. He then found fame wearing bug costumes and wedding dresses and perfecting his soul shout in Gnarls Barkley, the duo he formed with the producer Danger Mouse. Now he's returned to the solo career that Gnarls Barkley's success had put on the back burner. His new album for Elektra Records, "The Lady Killer," offers a sharkskin-smooth new framework for his constantly evolving sound.

"This project is neatly defined, for the first time in my career," he said of the new album, released last Tuesday. "Some consolidation has taken place, you know, and all for good reason. Nice package, nice paper with a bow on top — consider it a gift."

"The Lady Killer" has already proven to be a gift that keeps on giving. Its first single, the mirthfully profane "Forget You," became the viral hit of late summer in its uncensored version and established Green's new identity as the harbinger of forward-thinking retro-soul.

Produced by the Smeezingtons (the team that includes Green's rising Elektra labelmate, Bruno Mars), "Forget You" bubbles along on the trickster spirit of cognitive dissonance, its kiss-off to an unfaithful lover turning into an affirmation of self-love. The song cracked the Billboard Top 20, gave Green his first No. 1 hit in England, and set up "The Lady Killer" as one of the fall's major album releases.

"It definitely has a silver lining," he said of the song's mix of bubblicious melody and nasty lyrics. "It's what the English would call 'tongue in cheek.' It's just mean to be funny, really."

The single's modernized doo-wop sound is just one example of Green's time traveling on "The Lady Killer," an album that extends the range of retro-soul to encompass its maker's restless spirit. Tracks like the bourbon-mellow "Old Fashioned" ("I'm right on time," sings Green, "and I'm timeless!") and the bouncy "Cry Baby" pull from gospel and Otis Redding-style grit. Elsewhere, "The Lady Killer" proves expansive, referencing cinematic funk masters like Curtis Mayfield, Barry White and Earth, Wind & Fire.

"Cee Lo really captures what I love about the freedom in our art form, musically speaking," said EW&F singer and songwriter Philip Bailey, who provided vocals and harmonic instruction on the intensely sexy "Lady Killer" track "Fool for You." "That's one reason why I gravitated toward him and his music. We use the phrase 'full spectrum music' — Maurice [White, EW&F's co-founder] coined that term years ago, to describe this kind of music with a universal appeal."

Green has never been one to rest within a style, covering "Gone Baby Gone" by post-punkers the Violent Femmes in Gnarls Barkley and collaborating with artists as diverse as rappers like Common and Nas, the girl group the Pussycat Dolls (for whom he wrote the signature hit "Don't Cha"), the dance producer Paul Oakenfold, and, on the recent mix tape "Stray Bullets," New Wave pioneers the B-52's. Green cites Roxy Music and Jim Morrison as current influences, and calls Freddie Mercury, the late Queen front man, "the greatest of all time."

His commitment to staying open saves "The Lady Killer" from being just another costume shindig. As smart as Cee Lo looks in the classic sharp suits and pinky rings he's wearing to inhabit this character, he's mixing and matching within each song to come up with something new. "My instinct is to make involuntary associations among things that I like," Green explained.

Thematically, "The Lady Killer" wraps its arms around one of pop's strongest engines: erotic desire. Whether waxing lyrical on "Wildflower" or getting spooky on the noirish "Bodies," Green uses his sublime soul tenor to explore the wild variety within that thing called love.

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