As the Atlanta-based singer born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway put it so succinctly and perfectly on his 2004 sophomore album, Cee-Lo Green is the soul machine. From the start of his career dropping soulful and syrupy hooks as part of Goodie Mob, the Georgia crooner eventually charted a path of his own, releasing a pair of flamboyant and diverse solo records that juggled Southern soul traditions, Prince-like experimentation and hip-hop. And then, with Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo, along with producer Danger Mouse, gave the ’00s one of its most ubiquitous and just plain great singles in “Crazy.”
Just a little more than halfway into 2010, however, and Cee-Lo offered up yet another runaway hit with his profanity-laced Motown-style stunner, “Fuck You.” More than just ‘tude for ‘tude’s sake, the song’s title phrase serves as a defiant rallying cry for anyone who’s ever been wronged, in love or otherwise, and damn if it doesn’t feel good to say. In the radio edit, Cee-Lo is heard singing both “F-you” and “forget you,” but neither one removes the paradoxically joyous vitriol.
The inherent problem with a song as powerful and irresistible as “Fuck You,” however, is that it runs the risk of sucking up all the air in the room. As the lead single of Cee-Lo’s third album The Lady Killer, it certainly stands as a hard act to follow, but Green’s been in the game long enough to know how to avoid such pitfalls. As such, The Lady Killer flows with the same oddball ease and dazzle as his previous efforts, even outdoing the indie-soul quirk of Gnarls Barkley with its noir aesthetic and rich production by a long list of names ranging from Salaam Remi to Paul Epworth.
Falling somewhere between the trippy, quirky indie soul of Gnarls Barkley and the flashy drama of Cee-Lo’s first two solo outings, ultimately adding up to the most direct and accessible pop album in his catalog. Between a complementary introduction and outro, each depicting Cee-Lo as an almost James Bond-like character (strictly in a romantic sense, of course), Green and his super team tackle a rich tapestry of classic, soulful sounds, often recalling the likes of Curtis Mayfield or Al Green. “Satisfied,” in particular, has a sumptuous ’70s-inspired sound with pep for miles, which practically begs the song to be the album’s next single. However, it’s in good company in that department; the horn-heavy “I Want You” is both gorgeous and superbly funky, and “Cry Baby” shuffles with a mid-tempo bounce and a chorus soon to be embedded in every listener’s ears for weeks.
In addition to “Fuck You,” one of the most widely discussed and circulated tracks from the album is Cee-Lo’s cover of Band of Horses’ “No One’s Gonna Love You.” Yet in this context, the track is stripped of its twangy indie-pop sound and transplanted into a downtempo trip-hop structure, made richer with brass and strings. Another neat surprise is “Bodies,” one of the more darkly textured songs on the album, with a heavy John Barry influence, which spills over into the sultry “Love Gun.” Though Green’s make each of these songs into spectacular sonic showcases, it’s Cee-Lo that ultimately sells them, his honey-sweet pipes belting out each passionate verse with joy and pain, divorced from irony but clearly having the time of his life.
Perhaps Cee-Lo isn’t entirely divorced from irony – while The Lady Killer‘s lead single is called “Fuck You,” this is an album that’s incredibly listener friendly, warm, inviting and even downright hospitable. One of Cee-Lo’s most endearing qualities in the past was his willingness to embrace the weird and the unexpected. Yet by taking on a much more direct and traditional soul approach on The Lady Killer, he’s outdone himself, allowing his artistic fire to burn even brighter than before.
Video: “Fuck You”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.