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.
"Emotion is something that you don't simply receive," he said. "Emotion is compelled. Other than that we're just shells, until we're possessed or reanimated from time to time by different emotions. You become possessed with lust. You even notice after an orgasm: It's like, where was I?"
"The Lady Killer," said Green, is a kind of "idiot savant" who slays women — metaphorically — with his romantic savoir-faire. "I'm trying to associate it with something surreal or supernatural," he said. "It's beyond me."
"The Lady Killer" concept relies on the impact of violent imagery, said Green, but misogyny is the furthest thing from his mind. "This is meant to exalt, to adorn, to appreciate all things woman," he said.
"Well, you can be killed with kindness. But first you have to be killed with contact."
The phenomenal success of "Crazy" created a space for Green to play freely with different strains of music he loves. "I'm just making use of the right inspirations," he said of the vintage touches on "Lady Killer" tracks helmed by producers like Amy Winehouse associate Salaam Remi and Jack Splash, who's helped Alicia Keys find similar new spins on classic forms.
For the church-y ode to his home state, " Georgia," released as a single last June to whet listeners' appetite for "The Lady Killer," Green worked with the Menahan Street Band — the Bushwick, Brooklyn-based instrumental group whose "Make the Road By Walking" gave the main sample to Jay Z's acclaimed 2007 single "Roc Boys." The song has become a fan favorite, even covered by the South Carolina-based indie group Band of Horses with backing by the University of Georgia's Redcoat Marching Band.
Tom Brenneck, the mastermind behind the Menahan Street Band, said by e-mail that no one is better equipped to work from the place where hip-hop and soul meet — and where rock too sneaks in — than Green.
"Cee Lo is definitely the man to combine soul music and hip hop," he wrote. "Like rock & roll, hip hop is about the backbeat and the feeling. Cee Lo has the credibility of both genres. I don't think there are many artists out there like Cee Lo who can do that. Soul singers from the heyday usually don't like hip hop — they grow up with it. Cee Lo is hip hop and is soul — Southern soul from the church."
It took years of sticking to his guns, but Green has finally turned his defiant eclecticism into his biggest asset. Mainstream music has caught up with him. Hybrid styles and unexpected musical unions are becoming the norm, and Green's many guises, not to mention the chops he's developed working within so many pockets of the pop scene, serve him well.
His next move, he said, will be a return to the Goodie Mob fold — and this frequent assertion was supported when Khujo, another original member, popped in to say hello during the Marcel Hotel interview. Green hopes that the fans he's made through Gnarls Barkley and "The Lady Killer" project will be eager to explore his roots in a crew that itself was always one of the freest-thinking in hip-hop.
"I'm using a bit of this platform to introduce new people to Goodie Mob," he said. "And I'd like to do something new and interesting and provocative for Goodie Mob this time around. I don't even want people to be so certain about what Goodie Mob could be. My task is to put a spin on it, a spin in the right direction."
Wherever he goes, Green carries with him his biggest asset: the power to surprise. "I get a kick out of not being ideal," he said. "I think it's awesome. That's entirely the point. And I think my creator is quite a character for letting that be. Predictability is the cousin of death: I don't necessarily want people to see me coming. You know?"
And he smiled.