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Monday, September 20, 2010

Cee-Lo: Hilariously crass, wildly popular

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  • 'Fuck You' Video Still

What's eating Cee-Lo? Women, it seems. Cee-Lo's new single, the break-up ballad "Fuck You," is on everyone's tongue this fall because it makes catharsis sound pretty celebratory. With its nostalgic groove and cheery vocal refrain, the track has wormed its way into the national consciousness to the tune of 4 million YouTube hits. Critics have been similarly receptive, with The Chicago Sun-Times calling "Fuck You" "golden." Even 50 Cent recorded his own version of the track.

The success is well deserved for Cee-Lo, a 35-year-old rapper and singer perhaps best known as the face of experimental duo Gnarls Barkley. The group's two albums, particularly 2006's St. Elsewhere, are aggressively ambitious works that sometimes veer into such a dark direction that you're tempted to stop listening. "Just a Thought" pairs lyrics about suicide with a sparsely textured beat from Danger Mouse, who knows a thing or two about getting the best out of rappers (see: MF Doom).

But it was "Crazy" that made Cee-Lo a star. Although intensely bleak in tone, the song dominated '06 the same way Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" dominated 2009, wowing fans eager for a monster hook to latch onto. Alas, the extent to which Cee-Lo sacrificed his hip-hop cred in pursuit of crossover glory remains arguable. Writing songs with melodies is fine. Performing at the MTV Movie Awards while dressed as Dark Vader or Napoleon Dynamite? That's a little iffier.

On the other hand, maybe Cee-Lo should be applauded for staying afloat during an era when '90s rap artists are falling by the wayside with sad regularity. Guru died, Prodigy went to prison, and Wyclef Jean took heat for questionable political motives, but Cee-Lo got his picture in Rolling Stone.

The Atlanta native first found success in the collective Goodie Mob, where his gravelly voice and off-the-cuff rhymes earned him a vast cult following. Tracks like "Cell Therapy" (from Goodie Mob's beloved 1995 debut, Soul Food) work as complex meditations on ghetto life, but Cee-Lo's contributions to the first four OutKast albums strike an even louder emotional chord: particularly poignant is his verse on "Git Up, Git Out," off 'Kast's funkalicious 1994 disc Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.

Goodie Mob and OutKast were both part of the Dungeon Family, a large ensemble of forward thinking, socially conscious Atlanta artists responsible for many of the best albums in rap history. By the turn of this century, the Dungeon Family were national stars, and Andre 3000 (DF's most visible alum) seemed at odds with the hip-hop scene he had helped cultivate. The subsequent OutKast albums, 2000's Stankonia and 2003's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, were ingenious but bared little in common with traditional hip-hop. Cee-Lo followed suit: both his 2002 and 2004 releases, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and Cee-Lo Is...The Soul Machine, bended genres with little regard for the artist's less adventurous fans.

Eclectic alt-rap is all the rage now, though, with everyone from N.E.R.D. to Das Racist to B.o.B. leading the genre into strange directions. Cee-Lo seems at home in this climate. The response to "Fuck You" was almost universally positive, raunchy title and all.

"I didn't mean to offend anyone," Cee-Lo told Rolling Stone on September 3. "It was done in good taste...I'm sorry, kiddies."

Fuck them.

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