Atlanta rapper Cee-Lo has been a quasi-subterranean culture hero for a decade now, ever since his bone-shivering leadoff verse on the epic "Git Up, Git Out" from Outkast's 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
In 1994, the stocky, bald, bespectacled Cee-Lo had no parallel in hip-hop past or present. With his raspy preacherman delivery and self-described "silky, Southern drawl," he came off like Reverend Ike with wisdom and mic skills. The most distinctly Southern rap star ever in a genre only then breaking free of its bicoastal provincialism, Cee-Lo sounded like a hip-hop answer to chitlin-circuit soul belters like Z.Z. Hill, though his sensibility and agenda may have been more Swamp Dogg. (Cee-Lo definitely seems like the kind of guy who would come up with the song title "The Love We've Got Ain't Worth Two Dead Flies.") He was also the most country MC a self-consciously urban form had ever seen.
Humble, smart, funny, nonmaterialistic, and always ready with a pithy slogan ("I don't sell dope! I sell hope!"), Cee-Lo exploded from the mix he shared with the three other soundalike MCs in the group Goodie Mob, his whiny, gritty, sing-songy delivery demanding attention. This contrast was apparent but still kept in check on the group's ace debut, 1995's Soul Food, but Cee-Lo had a bit of a coming-out party on DJ Muggs' 1997 multi-artist compilation Soul Assassins. Coming on for the last verse on the Goodie Mob cut "Decisions, Decisions," Cee-Lo challenged the meaning of "keeping it real," upbraiding a sucker MC whose life "define[d] the misconception of staying down" and breaking down the ins and outs of a business that would leave said MC "back in the projects, in building 23, right next door to me."
After that, Cee-Lo owned Goodie Mob's next record, 1998's Still Standing, book-ending the record with soulful monologues and coming up with two show-stoppers in between. On "Beautiful Skin," he bats leadoff, coming correct with the sweetest pickup attempt in hip-hop history. Even better is "Gutta Butta," where he begins by asserting his very ordinariness ("I ain't shit/I just know how to rhyme a little bit/I'm still trying to fit my fat ass in where I sit") and ends with a description of a funny, frightening car-jacking incident where he gives up the car with no argument and has the thief drive him home. ("I value both of our lives more than this car.")
Cee-Lo finally broke free from Goodie Mob in 2002 with the solo move that his distinctiveness had long made inevitable. But as thrilling as Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections often was, it was perhaps a bit too diffuse. He gets electroboogie on the ecstatic single "Closet Freak." He drops science with a down-home delivery on "Big Ole Words (Damn)." And he confirms his unlikely love for acid-rock on the anthemic "Live (Right Now)." But the real bravery on the record is found in the way he explores his previous penchant to break into song: The comical title of one song intro is "Let Him Sing If He Wants To." "Country Love," despite the heavy bass line and hip-hop drum lick (which are pretty understated anyway), actually sounds like something Charley Pride might cover. And on "Young Man," he croons a loving warning to wayward younger rappers. Cee-Lo's obviously no Marvin Gaye in the vocal department, but Perfect Imperfections proved that he's a much better singer than Biz Markie.
Cee-Lo's latest, Cee-Lo Green and the Soul Machine, tightens this formula with positive results. Tempering his own left-field tendencies with contributions from such ace hip-hop producers as Timbaland, DJ Premier, and Memphis-bred Jazze Pha, Cee-Lo ends up with a batch of freak-flag hip-hop that you can still call hip-hop. The obvious comparison is to The Love Below, with a similar ratio of singing to rapping, though Cee-Lo blurs the distinction between the two with a natural vocal virtuosity that Andre 3000 can't quite match.
Soul Machine doesn't boast a sure-shot like "Hey Ya!" and the smooth-domed, pot-bellied Cee-Lo doesn't cut quite as telegenic a figure as Dre. But it's this contrast that speaks both to Cee-Lo's commercial limitations and to what has become his greatest artistic gift: inspirational goading.
Self-esteem-boosting "positive" songs, especially directed by male artists to female listeners, have become such a staple of boho hip-hop and neo-soul as to be cliché. But Cee-Lo sweeps his audience up with a generosity never tainted by ego. He wants to embrace us all and carry us to the mountaintop with him, yet there's no messianic aftertaste. When Cee-Lo observes, "And God can truly work a miracle/Look at me, isn't it obvious that I'm one?," it's a simple, lovely statement of faith that could be the cultural David to Mel Gibson's Goliath.
The musical source of this particular triumph comes from Cee-Lo's feel for R&B, which, unlike most hip-hop-bred artists, seems to embrace the '60s as much as the '70s and seems less based on style or nostalgia than on actual sound and meaning. This gift blooms most fully on the standout "All Day Love Affair," where Cee-Lo pitches woo over a two-note keyboard riff and hand-clap/foot-stomp/salt-shaker beats in the closest thing any hip-hop artist has come to the unabashed soul-man beauty of the Spinners.
That Cee-Lo remains more a second-tier commercial rapper or cult hero than a true star is perhaps appropriate. Long situated in a milieu of self-described players and gangstas and their critics, who often speak from a middle-class remove, Cee-Lo has long repped hip-hop's version of the Silent Majority: just plain folks. •