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How Cee Lo Green Sells Soul

Keeping musician’s hours means a lot of late-night TV. One of the most annoying aspects of this lifestyle is the infomercial. Those endless sales pitches voiced by mannequins with greased hair and polyester suits, triumphing the virtues of a product so poorly made that it will almost certainly break in the mail. They must work for some people, but for me the more they extol the virtues of their gadget the more obvious its flaws become. If it’s so good, why do you have to prove it?

Cee Lo Green is the P-funk of this generation. He has those grooves that sound like they’re transmitting from a planet much funkier than ours, that verbose insight in his lyrics that George Clinton was so good at, and he follows to the letter the dictum of “Free your mind and your ass will follow”. While he’s most often recognized as the vocal half of Gnarls Barkley, Cee Lo got his start as a member of the Atlanta quartet Goodie MOB, a hugely influential (if somewhat unrecognized) southern rap group. After leaving them he struck out on a solo career with Arista Records, releasing two stellar solo albums: Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections, and Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine.

Released in 2004, Is the Soul Machine is almost unbearably funky. A bouncy rhythm section is augmented by huge, tight horn lines and deliciously discordant piano sounds. There is hardly time to listen to these niceties however, because Cee-Lo’s voice sits on top of these arrangements like a king on his throne. He’s incredibly flexible, one song he’s Al Green, the next he’s Ghostface Killa, then falling back to the tone of a modern Arthur Alexander. But he certainly doesn’t need me to tell him this; he knows it, as he says himself:

How could possibly I possibly be inconspicuous,
When my flow is so fucking ridiculous?

His album is full of such lyrical gems. His braggadocio is all-consuming on some songs, as in “Childz Play” with Ludacris, where he boasts:

Yes I can sing, and I can rap
And I can act, and I can dance
And I can dress, sign of the best
So is my guest, man I’m impressed
Hurry hurry hurry hurry, come and see
This is just like child’s play to me.

From anyone who couldn’t back this up it would be come off as patronizing and arrogant, but Cee-Lo is so obviously all of these things that you find yourself agreeing with him.

In the spoken word rap “Selling Soul”, Cee Lo talks about how no matter how noble your aspirations are every artist is eventually doing just that, selling soul. Even someone as proud and strong as Cee-Lo says that “rapping sometimes feels like tapping to make a cracker happy”. He’s very much a salesman, he’s offering himself on a little plastic disc. It’s this kind of honesty that is the difference between a sales pitch and a boast. While my late night infomercials are bragging in order to sell something, what Cee-Lo is selling are the boasts themselves, because this braggadocio is who he really is.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

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LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

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