CeeLo Green Is the Most Unifying Voice in Pop Music
"Thank you, everybody!"
With so many platforms with which to access music, it's almost impossible for everyone to be humming the same new tune. No longer are radio DJs or MTV producers the guardians of the sounds we hear regularly. Now you can type any song into your browser and hear it instantly. While this freedom is great, it also means we, as a society, have lost common sonic ground. People either dance excitedly to songs of the past — '90s hip-hop and the Rolling Stones — or just kind of do a limp-arm shuffle to all the "freshest" stuff played at frat parties, weddings, hipster clubs, and quinceañeras. There is, however, one artist in this millennium who not once but twice was the exception to this loose rule: CeeLo Green. "Crazy" and "Fuck You!" got everyone singing the same song and that same quirky name.
In 1995, if you were going to pick an artist in hip-hop who would still be relevant two decades later, you might have named Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest or Andre 3000 from Outkast, but few would have selected CeeLo Green, the rotund member of another Atlanta group, Goodie Mob. Coolio probably even seemed a safer choice. In the 1990s, Goodie Mob struggled to get out of its Dungeon Family cohort Outkast's considerable shadow. One of Goodie Mob's songs was actually what labeled the Southern rap scene as "The Dirty South," and it was able to finagle a cameo in the great Ben Stiller superhero comedy Mystery Men. But for the most part, the group had to settle for being ATL's second sons.
If you listen again to the Goodie Mob's first three albums, you can hear CeeLo's evolution from MC to timeless superstar soul singer. From 1995 album Soul Food to 1998's Still Standing, he grows less afraid to be more distinct. But by 2000, the party was over. The group's last album, World Party, in spite of features by TLC and Outkast (and an early production credit by Kanye West), flopped. Goodie Mob was dropped by its record label, and CeeLo left the group.
Green undoubtedly thought the world was his after earning a guest spot on Santana's "Do You Like the Way," on which he and Lauryn Hill took turns belting out lyrics. That album sold 26 million copies and was as omnipresent in 1999 as news stories about Y2K. With Macy Gray, Jill Scott, and D'Angelo making soul relevant again, CeeLo could be forgiven for thinking his voice would also soon be everywhere. But his first two solo albums, 2002's Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and 2004's Cee-Lo Green... Is the Soul Machine succeeded only in getting CeeLo dropped from another record label, Arista. Imperfections is overlong and unfocused, but Soul Machine still holds up. It was influential not only for CeeLo's later work but also highlighted guest artist and producer Pharrell, whose hit "Happy" this year sounds almost as CeeLo as CeeLo.
During those years where the artist seemed lost in the musical wilderness, two important things happened. Outkast's "Hey Ya" showed that a great song could still infiltrate all corners of our culture. It got play on rock, hip-hop, and pop stations, at bar mitzvahs and karaoke bars. At the same time, a young producer known as Danger Mouse gained notoriety with his Grey Album, which mixed the Beatles' eponymous release, also known as the White Album, with Jay-Z's The Black Album. Seamlessly merging rock with rap, hippies with gangsters, what was old was new again. And in CeeLo Green, Danger Mouse found the living embodiment of the past, present, and future of music. The duo joined forces under the ridiculous name of Gnarls Barkley and proceeded to record an album, 2006's St. Elsewhere, that cut out all the fat present in CeeLo's previous non-Goodie projects. The 14 tracks come in at under 40 minutes but still find room for elements of gospel, rap, dance, and even a Violent Femmes cover. One song, though, stands out above the rest.
"Crazy" plays the seemingly impossible trick of making you forget Willie Nelson once wrote Patsy Cline another nearly perfect song by the same name. From the opening five beats preceding CeeLo's wail of "I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind," the song has its hooks in you and never lets go. Taking samples from the score of a 1968 Italian Western Viva! Django, CeeLo provided a Motown voice for the parents while Danger Mouse gave the song crisp beats the kids could dance to. The casual listener could pick out a couple of words from it and figure it's a happy love song, while the obsessive could pore over the words and appreciate that it's about mental illness and hope that there was someone else out there "crazy just like me."
The popularity of that song was so overwhelming that when CeeLo eventually passes away, it guarantees his obituary lands a prominent spot on any website, even if the rest of his career consists of middling work. With the next Gnarls Barkley album, 2008's The Odd Couple, it seemed CeeLo might be on a forgettable path. It's a pleasant-enough album; if it came on, you wouldn't turn it off, but nothing stood out like "Crazy." Of course, that's a high standard to live up to — a once-a-decade standard, according to Rolling Stone, which named it best song of the first decade of the 2000s.
But then, 2010 was the start of a new decade, and who knew what'd come next? That's when CeeLo Green released "Fuck You!" or in polite company, "Forget You!"
Whereas "Crazy" could be considered a love song, "Fuck You" expressed that other shared extreme human emotion: hatred. Tapping into a good-time oldies jingle, "Fuck You" isn't the perfectly crafted pop confection of "Crazy," but it comes pretty damned close and was nearly as ubiquitous. Gwyneth Paltrow sang it in an episode of Glee, and Gonzo's chickens did a version in the 2011 movie The Muppets. Time magazine even named it the top song of 2010. It's the rarest of things, a fun number that the whole family can curse along to.
Over the past few years, CeeLo did a couple of celebrity victory laps. He has been a coach on the popular NBC show The Voice, and he reunited with Goodie Mob for a so-so album, Age Against the Machine. He also helmed a terrible reality show, CeeLo Green's The Good Life, which not only steals the premise from the show Entourage (where a celebrity is surrounded by his wacky, less-famous childhood buddies) but also plagiarizes actual plot points like starting a driving company with hot chicks as chauffeurs. But fame is usually fleeting, so CeeLo might as well enjoy it to the max. The TV shows will disappear, but it's CeeLo's music that will play at every future wedding, forever. You can catch him live as he tours this summer with Lionel Richie. It'll be worth a trip to Cruzan Amphitheatre, because guaranteed, CeeLo's versions of "Crazy" and "Fuck You!" will be far superior to any wedding band's finest rendition.
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