Cee Lo Green has earned a strange reputation of reinventing himself over and over again. Maybe the artist in him gets bored with familiar, stereotypical styles or maybe he's just loaded with multi-layered expressions and interpretations to bring forth. Just trace the history. He came out of the box, premiering with Atlanta-based funk rap outfit Goodie Mob as an Dirty South-bred rapper, shifts into a flamboyant bad boy solo act for two modestly-accepted projects on Arista and then exposes a newly inherited hybrid of rapper-vocalist as one-half of alternative duo Gnarls Barkley (and his greatest achievement on paper due to the breakout Grammy-winning song "Crazy"). And, just when we've gotten accustomed to the experimental rock/hip-hop of Danger Mouse and Green, out comes "F*** You!" the 2010 hit no one expected.
The potty-mouth post-breakup song bubbled under the charts as a contagious viral sensation and began to swarm quickly into rock and pop radio. Even with a calmer, clean version sent to R&B radio, it seemed as if Green's hip-hop world had left him for dead; only playing the song months later after a sporadic handful of Southern stations decided to spin the song. Apparently, his tease with the pop charts must've caused some dissension between him and his hip-hop constituents (warheads). For a song that sounds like a Motown throwback using an Otis Redding gusto, the song stalled on the R&B charts at #62 while it flourished on the Hot 100 reaching the Top 20. Based off the blunt delivery of "F*** You!" and its many F-bombs, critics may have pondered if Green wrote the song as a middle-fingered protest at black radio, since they've slept on much of his output, including his Gnarls Barkley stint. But, The Lady Killer, Cee Lo's third solo offering, does a fine job in silencing those rumors.
The Lady Killer is an absorbent, unapologetic soul record, decked out with Motown gloss, Stax fire and Philly soul teases. Even if the up-tempo opener "Bright Lights City Limits," bearing a sweet contrast of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" with Maroon 5 pop, wants to de-typify the album into something different, the heart of the album clamors tightly to nostalgic soul. His Al Green-meets-David Peaston vocals rub buoyantly against the delicate ‘70s-styled production backdrop of strings, horns and live instrumentation, evidenced best on songs like "F*** You," "It's OK" and "Cry Baby." The obvious ear-pleaser: "Satisfied" is carved into a Supremes-esque gem that uses a relevant pop finish as bright as Prince's "I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man." And, then there's "Old Fashioned," where Green's impassioned baritone wraps itself around a Curtis Mayfield-styled love ballad. Green does inject a great deal of neo-pizzazz into the set and surprisingly comes out with fresh-out-the-bakery results, particularly with "Love Gun," which uses 007 strings, OutKast swagger and a duet with Lauren Bennett, that feels like the playful soul Melanie Fiona played with on The Bridge. Green isn't afraid to belt like a career crooner and his passionate delivery and unique precision on "Fool for You," surrounded by Phillip Bailey's falsetto background vocals, proves he's one of the best of his generation.
The album also does a fine job injecting some mysterious thriller elements into the mix; thanks to the album's womanizing marquee. With 007 spy music book-ending the project and a thriller of an introduction ("But, when it comes to ladies, I have a license to kill"), the album becomes more than just a decent long player. It becomes an efficacious radio-ready, surround-sound experience. The "lady-killer" motif is revisited on "Bodies." Thanks to the Barry White bedroom magic, "Bodies," a song that is as explicitly sexy as it is haunting: "They said that chivalry is dead/Then why is her body in my bed/At sunrise the morning paper's read/They found a body in my bed."
Throughout the 50 minutes of The Lady Killer, there isn't a trace of a dud. Not one drooping moment of the expected album filler. It's as if Green, after revisiting his previous works, decided to pair himself with challenging material while also taking his voice a little more serious. The results are career-defining and groundbreaking, especially for modern R&B. Just imagine someone taking Raphael Saadiq's brilliant flashback LP The Way I See It and injected it with some Hollywood-inspired Botox. It's an album that defies radio-designed stereotypes and, if accessed the right way, should be able to bury them alive. Unequivocally Recommended
By J. Matthew Cobb