Atlanta rapper Thomas "Cee-Lo Green" Callaway has been a quasi-subterranean culture hero for a decade now, ever since his bone-shivering leadoff verse on OutKast's epic "Git Up, Git Out" back in 1994. From there, he went on to light up such Dirty South touchstones as Soul Food and Still Standing with his own group, Goodie Mob, where his whiny, gritty, sing-songy delivery stood out mightily among the three soundalike MCs with whom he traded verses.
Cee-Lo finally broke free in 2002 with the solo move that his distinctiveness had long made inevitable. But as often-thrilling as Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections was, it was perhaps a bit too diffuse, melding acid-rock and electroboogie and chitlin-circuit soul and even country music into one exhausting statement of purpose.
This follow-up tightens the formula and streamlines the sonic array, 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 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 clichÇ. 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 as well 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 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.
From the opening whirr of the helicopter blades to the looped applause, sirens, and sound bites from President George W. Bush, Trans Am make their stance perfectly clear: This is an election year, and our country is living in fear. Lucky for us, this Washington, D.C.-based trio chose not to sit idly by. Instead, they made one of the most politically explosive albums in recent memory.
Tension, darkness, and an overriding sense of doom dominate tracks like "Total Information Awareness," which features synthesized vocals over a gloomy drum beat and choppy instrumentation. The band's tongue-in-cheek "Is Trans Am Really Your Friend?" and its follow-up, "Remote Control," effectively blend beats from the Hacienda scene of the early '90s with more modern sounds, while the cut-and-paste vocal techniques of "White Rhino" and "Uninvited Guest" evoke similar undertakings by cult faves Negativeland. Sure, it's been done before, but with their seventh album, Trans Am have gone where too many contemporary bands fear to tread. -- Andria Lisle
Trans Am perform Wednesday, March 17th, at the Young Avenue Deli, with Paris, Texas.