As an MC in Atlanta’s gospel-cum-gangsta rap group Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo Green had one foot in the commercial rap world, with its thuggin’ boom and iced-out raps, and one in the not-quite-as-hip world of proclaiming his faith. On his solo debut, however, Cee-Lo fashions himself a hip-hop eccentric like his fellow Dungeon Family cohorts (and onetime band mates) Outkast. But where the ’Kast pays off its Waylon and Madam wardrobes and post-hip-hop rhythms with tight songs and sing-along hooks, Cee-Lo is a spaced-out evangelist on Perfect Imperfections, delivering rambling sermons over sprawling, mothership-connected jams held aloft with exotic instrumentation.
He strips hip-hop’s boom down to a more existential metronome of polyrhythms that serves as a funky pulpit for outre-hop ideas that work both as Jeep beats and incense-burning headphone rock. Tiki-torch xylophones tap out the melody of the opening “Bad Mutha,” where Cee-Lo proclaims himself, a, what else? “bad motherfucker” before lapsing into a Rick James lick. Blues Traveler’s John Popper provides harmonica on the bluesy ballad “Country Love,” which veers between Hootie baritone and R&B croon before it hits its stride as Seal fronting Arrested Development. The results are closer to soul or R&B than they are straight-up hip hop, but that’s Cee-Lo’s point: hip hop’s flatter than day-old Cristal, so he’s filling its 40 from a baptismal font to give it some different, albeit abstract flavor.
It’s the abstract part that doesn’t always work. Cee-Lo favors a Washington go-go vibe of rolling songs capable of going on as long as he needs them to, which is good, because Cee-Lo’s high-pitched wheeze, a sort of cross between Cypress Hill’s B-Real’s adenoidal whine and Tom Waits on helium, makes him like a raspy preacher who gets so moved by the spirit he can’t shut up. On the moving “Big Ole Words,” Cee-Lo lays down his mission statement over an eerily spare beat — “To tell you the truth trials and tribulations are very tirin’/I gotta play a little game of gimmick of gun firin’/ I’m not inspirin’ to be any lower or higher than,” he says, ending on the note that he’s going to “die once to never ever die again.” Though musically the song doesn’t go anywhere, Cee-Lo sure does, spelling out his man-of-God rap in a series of internally rhymed lines that build and tumble with words and images like a born-again Biggie Smalls. When he does stumble into more conventional sounds, like the wah-wah guitar of “Live (Right Now),” Cee-Lo lacks a ballast, no matter how much he raps about Armageddon. But at least he’s the one that’s long-winded, not his vision.
E-mail Hobey Echlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.