The Lady Killer opens with a spoken intro (“The Lady Killer Theme”) that will momentarily excite longtime Cee Lo fans who remember the gravitas of “The Experience.” Within seconds, that excitement quickly transforms into confusion. Cee Lo whispers, “I’m often asked, ‘What do I do for a living?’ And I answer, ‘I do what I want.'” After some more words about spontaneity and spice or some such, head-scratching quickly descends into disappointment: “But when it comes to ladies, I have a license [pause] to kill.” Cue mysterious music swell and listener sighs.
Here is the curious case of Cee Lo Green. Once upon a time Cee Lo was on track to become an MC’s MC. You know, the penniless yet upright type. Hip-hop purists fell at his feet when he made his debut with Goodie Mob in the mid-’90s. Gifted with an impassioned voice and a muscular command of wordplay, he struck out on his own — twice, no less. As his former group dissolved, he released 2002’s Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and 2004’s Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine. Both garnered critical praise but made little commercial impact. Then, seemingly on a lark, he embarked on a partnership with producer Danger Mouse. Their project, Gnarls Barkley, fared better — far beyond Green’s wildest dreams. Yes, he’s the one serenading your nonna right now with that uprock number about the fear of insanity.
In 2010 Cee Lo has a chance at rebirth. Having made music for music’s sake for over 15 years, he is seizing that opportunity by taking a strategic view. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he noted, “For too long I’ve been underground and underdog, and I need to be seen as the thing to do…” This is the key to The Lady Killer.
Longtime fans of Cee Lo shouldn’t think of his new album as his third solo effort (i.e., stop looking for a direct connection between Still Standing, his two solo records, and this), but rather a new chapter in his career. New fans have it easier; all they need to do is refer back to “Crazy,” if anything, and thus look forward to fast, good times.
In fairness The Lady Killer is a remarkable study in compromise. Its pop sheen is as subtle as any other star’s in 2010. The close-up cover portrait. The curvy, Teenage Dream font branding. The Most Interesting Man wardrobe. Not to mention the music: A-list, retro-minded producers (Salaam Remi, Jack Splash, Fraser T. Smith) help Cee Lo shake Northern soul optimism with quantized drum polish.
Yet this is still a Cee Lo album. Like a seasoned actor demonstrating his range, Cee Lo effortlessly channels whimsy (“Fuck You”) and firm resolve (“Wildflower”). He asserts a constant presence, even at the album’s lowest moments, to maintain continuity; when the campy “Love Gun” threatens to collapse under cliched 007 guitar riffs and an egregious industry plug (Lauren Bennett of the Iovine’d Paradiso Girls dominates the song’s arrangement), Cee Lo gently pushes and pulls the rhythm during his brief verse. And, of course, there is that incomparable voice.
As an album The Lady Killer achieves everything it purports to be. Its music is familiar enough to attract broad attention. It already has the hit single, the viral “Fuck You,” that has performed beyond all expectations, thus cementing Cee Lo’s solo reputation in the mainstream. And there is enough Cee Lo to make the album stand out as “something different.” If the industry and listeners repay the effort, then Cee Lo just may have another chance to stay in the picture.