Cee-lo has finally done it. In the company of Danger Mouse, under the loopy name of Gnarls Barkley, Cee-lo has crafted one of the finest singles ever made. “Crazy” is genius, pure and simple. It achieves its effect without cameos, guitar solos, lengthy intros, psychedelic outros or bootylicious videos, in three minutes that feel like two and are over way too soon. You can dance to it, fall in love to it, break up to it, drive to it. You can play it in front of your kids, but it’s not childish. The lyrics are richly allusive, deeply moving and easy to memorize. “Crazy” harks back to the tight and driving three-minute symphonies of the Phil Spector era. About the only song I can think of from the stereo era that matches its compression and force is “We Will Rock You,” which hits harder but carries less transcendent emotion.
I first discovered Cee-lo in Korea. I was late to the whole Dirty South phenomenon, but in a country where Uhm Jung Hwa’s (엄정화) “DaGaRa (YouTube)” (다가라) was about as funky as things ever got, we were desperate for whatever scraps of American cool came our way. When I caught Dungeon Family’s “Trans-DF Express” on late-night TV, I knew I had to find the album.
Despite its cheeky reference to Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express (YouTube),” “Trans-DF Express” is utterly American and a fine introduction to the startling talents of the Goodie Mob–OutKast. But even surrounded by so much talent, the unusual voice and lyrics of Cee-lo stood out. His snap ends as follows:
I wouldn’t be amazing without God’s amazing grace / I can travel outer space while standing in one place.
In that one couplet, Cee-lo managed to transcend the default nihilism of mainstream hip-hop, tap into the spiritualist universalism of late-sixties Black Power soul and the sci-fi tropes of seventies funk, and deliver a legitimately evangelical declaration of Christian faith. And all with a slight lisp.
Everywhere he popped up on Even in Darkness, Cee-lo brought something special, so when I caught the video for “Closet Freak” later that year, I ran out and bought his solo record as soon as I could. Unfortunately, Cee-lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections was, well, imperfect. One good single does not an album make, and Cee-lo just couldn’t keep the intensity going over the length of the album. It never made it into my regular rotation, and when his next record came out, I ignored it entirely.
Considering how much the Dungeon Family has done to broaden hip-hop musically, it seems strange to suggest that Cee-lo needed a different producer, but with Danger Mouse he seems to have found his muse. Like its lead-off single, St. Elsewhere is admirable for what it omits — cameos, skits, filler — and for clocking in at just over 38 minutes. It also manages to overcome the limitations of genre, venturing as far afield as “Gone Daddy Gone,” a pretty straight cover of the classic Violent Femmes song, and “Smiley Faces,” which has a beat Andrew Ridgeley could dance to. Admittedly there is nothing else as good as “Crazy.” But then, no one else has produced anything as good this year either.
To read more about this extraordinary song and the many cover versions it has inspired, check out Jody Rosen’s article in Slate.