On the cover of his first solo record, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, Thomas "Cee-Lo" Callaway flanked by a church-style pipe organ and wearing a psychedelic top hat looks a little like a diabolical Buddha, or maybe a shaman, putting on a fun-house magic show. Light refracts off of his open hand, which beckons you to enter the temple of hip-hop. In real life, Cee-Lo believes that hip-hop is in need of some serious help and not of the smoke-and-mirrors variety.
"I just believe hip-hop and music in general is in despair," he says. "People want something that they can hold sacred and that is real to them and speaks to the heart of the people. All music doesn't have to convey a message all the time there's quality nonsense and quality irrelevance but I think it's time where we need something profound.
"There needs to be a revolution, and revolution is synonymous with change," he adds. "I've just come to set that in motion."
Motion has been a defining characteristic throughout the rapper's career. Most heads first heard of Cee-Lo when he blazed the chorus of OutKast's "Git Up, Git Out" on that crew's debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994. But he's best known as a member of Goodie Mob, the Atlanta-based four-man outfit that, along with OutKast and others, has helped revolutionize the distinctive sound of Southern hip-hop the "Dirty South" style and prove that you needn't have a coastal claim to be heard. With both Goodie Mob and hip-hop itself at a creative crossroads, Cee-Lo decided to step out on his own. He approached Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections as a challenge to himself and the musical community.
"I'm kind of discontent with the state of hip-hop right now, and I'm not challenged by it at all," he says. "I do hope that it is inspiring for the hip-hop audience, who are my peers, to see me branching out into some uncharted territory and trying to be an addition to hip-hop and to lengthen the life span. Hip-hop as it is today is becoming too monotonous."
Listeners who've gotten used to the one-note flavor of commercial rap may be wary of Perfect Imperfections' stylistic hodgepodge. Open-minded listeners, however, will find plenty worth sampling here. Though it might initially feel like a complete departure from Goodie Mob's music, careful listens reveal the disc to be a thoughtful exploration of blues, soul and gospel all styles that helped to lay the foundation for creative rap crews, including the Mob. The album melds Cee-Lo's raspy raps with singing that has its roots in the church.
"My mother and father were ministers, so I'm greatly influenced by gospel," he says. "I believe gospel, in its praise and joyful noise, is empowering; it's positive energy. Gospel is the origin of all music. Even when you're singing the blues, it's all the same thing."
In addition to its more divinely inspired moments, the record gets grimy and greasy in plenty of places. The Dirty South, which Goodie Mob charted so colorfully on its three albums, is represented on tracks like "El Dorado Sunrise (Super Chicken)" and "Suga Baby," which enlists the Mob's Big Gipp and Backbone. The emphasis, though, is on Cee-Lo's singing.
"[The album] is in that same revolutionary spirit that Goodie Mob reveled in," he says. "I believe it was still done on the same terms that is, to offer an alternative."
On this point, Perfect Imperfections is a smashing success. The grooves bounce from Southern crunch to chicken-scratch funk to deep soul to hard-core rock 'n' roll. Who else could mix the Mary Jane Girls' naughty classic "In My House" with Primus' "Wounded Knee," as Cee-Lo does on the opening track, "Bad Mutha"? (Cee-Lo says of bass man Les Claypool's former band: "They got a lot of soul and a lot of sense of humor. I can dig that. And he's a helluva bass player. He's nasty.")
Like works by Prince and Marvin Gaye, Perfect Imperfections blurs the line between the sacred, the profane and the sensual and often draws a connection among the three. On "Closet Freak," Cee-Lo urges a listener to "be free and express yourself" because "nastiness comes naturally." On "Medieval Times (Great Pretender)," he speaks of "a thin line between the divine and a killing machine."
"That's what this album is," he says. "It's about showcasing virtue and vice. Who better to witness that there is a God than somebody as imperfect as you? The title of the record suggests human nature how we're all born into human nature, which is imperfect but intentional nonetheless. So I just believe that we're God's exact intention, and the plight of all existence is to master yourself. Perfect imperfection is a constant, just as yin and yang is."
Growing up in a home in southwest Atlanta headed by his God-fearing great-grandmother, grandmother and mother his father passed away when he was a toddler Cee-Lo had to sneak his exposure to secular music. Mom was none too pleased when, as a young boy, he wanted to buy Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil. She forbade "the devil's work" in her home. Cee-Lo often had to creep into the living room late at night to take a peek at some of his favorite videos, including Peter Gabriel's racy "Shock the Monkey."
"She had her times," he says, laughing. "Sometimes it was cool, sometimes it wasn't. But ultimately there was no hiding me from it, because I am it."
Encouraged early on by a musically inclined aunt, Cee-Lo became a singer and aspiring MC while still a teenager. The pursuit gave him some focus in his life. "I was headed in the wrong direction," he says. "It was obvious. I was doing the exact opposite of what people knew me as. That's the reason why I offer so much praise and so much homage [to music]: I was spared because of music."
Fortunately, things began to coalesce for Cee-Lo when he attended a local alternative high school where André Benjamin, a.k.a. Dré from OutKast, was also enrolled. The two, who had known each other as kids, began to collaborate musically and continued to do so after graduation. At one point, Cee-Lo was set to become the third member of OutKast; when that didn't pan out, he hooked up with three area hip-hop heads Khujo, T-Mo and Big Gipp and formed Goodie Mob. Soon after, OutKast and Goodie Mob aligned themselves with the Organized Noize production team and began to record tracks in a basement studio known as the Dungeon. Along the way, the two groups generated a regional buzz for creating articulate, bumping, socially aware rap. By the mid-'90s, that buzz had spread nationwide. OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik put Atlanta on the rap map after it was released in 1994; Goodie Mob followed in 1995 with Soul Food, issued on the La Face label.
In the midst of Cee-Lo's new creative success, things took a grim turn in his personal life: His mom passed away around the time of Soul Food's release. Her influence remained strong in his art and taught him to respect women, even while working in a genre that often suggested doing otherwise. This theme runs throughout Perfect Imperfections, especially on the track "Young Man (Sierra's Song)," which he wrote for his daughter. The song can be read as a missive to young men who feel inclined to dis women but might also have daughters of their own one day: "Hey there, young man/Why degrade your only sister/And call them bitches and whores?/What if one day someone feels the same way about that daughter of yours?" Cee-Lo asks on the cut.
"I have daughters," he says, explaining his reason for writing the tune. "Our music has become overly misogynistic, and it's not fair. I love my mother. I love all women. We cannot continue and live on without our women. I just want men to take responsibility for that."
Personal responsibility is a concept that guides Cee-Lo, a guy who's got the word "Revolution" tattooed across the width of his back. But one wishes he would have stuck to his guns when making a couple of recent career choices, most notably Goodie Mob's critically panned last album World Party. With tracks like "Get Rich to This," the release reflected a materialism that the Mob has always railed against; sonically, it sounded tailor-made for the club set. The inexplicable decision to sample Lionel Richie's insipid "All Night Long" implied that the group had hit a creative dry spell.
"I believe we failed morally with that album. I was ashamed of that album," Cee-Lo says. "We suffered from temporary insanity, like, even when we were doing it. I was just like, 'We are going to disappoint a lot of people with this album, dude. This is not signature Goodie Mob. It's definitely not progression it's regression.' I opted not to argue, because I was more or less the odd man out as far as that was concerned. Nobody saw it like that at the time."
Despite the giant World Party misstep, Cee-Lo says that Goodie Mob is still intact, though "in all honesty, this is a trying time." The Mob regrouped last year to record tracks for the Dungeon Family release, which featured OutKast and other Southern artists in a kind of supergroup setting. For the most part, though, the Mob members are in separate corners, at least for the moment. Big Gipp is working on a solo album of his own, while Cee-Lo tours in support of Perfect Imperfections.
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"[The album] is one of those things that I had to do alone. I'll bring it to the table, and I'll share it with the family," he says. "I feel like I'm the caveman out there, killing the deer and bringing it back it to the cave. I don't feel like I'm upstaging or outshining anyone. This album is going to take me on a journey. It's going to take [Gipp] on a journey. And what I do and what he does is all going to creep right back to the Goodie Mob big body of work."
So far, Cee-Lo's solo sojourn has taken him many interesting places. He collaborated with Lauryn Hill on "Do You Like the Way," a track from Carlos Santana's multiplatinum smash Supernatural. On the song, Cee-Lo sounds like a hip-hop descendant of Otis Redding, a quality that led Santana to describe him as "the voice of a thousand generations."
With a solo project that dares to be different, it will be interesting to see if Cee-Lo can help resuscitate a genre that's currently gasping for air. He certainly feels an obligation to do so.
"I would have been putting a nail in the coffin by coming out and doing the exact same thing as what's going on when I know I can make a difference and when people, as well, know that I can."