A couple months ago I got to attend a listening party for the new Goodie Mob album, Age Against The Machine, at Tree Sound Studios in the suburbs of Atlanta. Also in attendance were a few handfuls of ATL's elite hip-hop journalists who like me have been around since the '90s, when The Dungeon Family ruled The South and the music was full of black magic.
Fast-forward to 2013, and Cee-Lo Green is a certified celebrity and household name, thanks to his universally popular hit "Crazy" as half of Gnarls Barkley, his equally successful single "F*ck You", and his role as a judge on the televised music competition The Voice. Cee-Lo allegedly started off as an original member of OutKast along with Andre 3000 and Big Boi, before being placed in a four-man rap outfit and being instantly recognized as a standout talent among fellow GM members Khujo, T-Mo, and Big Gipp. His hyper-conscious street sense, inimitable voice, gospelicious singing ability, and bulky, bald-headed, "Trill"-tattooed appearance made him unique to say the very least.
LaFace Records released Goodie Mob's first album, Soul Food, in 1995, and the critical response was immediately and overwhelmingly positive, along with the reception from an adoring public very curious of what these crazy sonic southerners were doing. The album sold over 500k units and was certified gold within a year, which back then was unequivocally considered a success. Next came Still Standing, which almost everyone considered to be artistically separate yet equally as good as their debut. Although the album was also certified gold, it was considered a commercial disappointment to many that expected heftier sales now that they were established and adored. Full disclosure: I'm a former employee of LaFace Records, and as someone that worked for the company before and after Still Standing was released, I recall plenty of blame and speculation as to why it didn't reach platinum (over a million sold) status, from L.A. Reid's absence during the album's rollout -- he was taking a summer course at Harvard as part of the process of being groomed to replace Clive Davis at Arista Records -- to the absence of a commercially viable crossover hit, and even a possible issue with the song "Fly Away", in which member Khujo wholeheartedly rejected homosexuality and invited gays to invite themselves elsewhere than near himself.
What came next was World Party, which one might have assumed before hearing it was a reference to global politics, since Goodie was always very vocal about the inequality, poverty, and the lack of proud and positive influences available in the slums of America. Yeah, but no. World Party was quite simply a reference to the decision from the group, or at least certain members, that it was time to abandon the more hard-core elements of their message and to take a break for the sake of good times. You know, don't worry -- be happy. Ironically, no one was with their third album, and it marked the beginning of Cee-Lo's distanced relationship with the rest of the Mob. Coincidentally, it was not long after the release of World Party that LaFace Records closed and L.A. ascended to the presidency of the record company that funded and distributed his own label's music.
Several projects followed, including two Arista album releases from Cee-Lo, Big Gipp's Mutant Mindframe, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show (essentially a Goodie-minus-Cee-Lo album), 'Lo's "Crazy"-spawning album with Danger Mouse, Khujo and T-Mo releasing an album under the moniker The Lumberjacks (Goodie's original name before the inclusion of Gipp and Cee-Lo), and Cee-Lo's most recent LP, The Lady Killer, which set him up for renewed popularity via "F*ck You" and made him legitimately and unarguably famous.
Now, here we are in the first week of the release of Age Against The Machine, a new album that clearly recognizes Cee-Lo's status but marks an assumed return to where he began, including the rest of the Mob. And the result is a somewhat-unfamiliar voyage into territory where growth is apparent, chemistry is evident but sometimes strained, and the core message still in existence albeit in a friendlier package for those unfamiliar with their revolutionary and rebellious origins.
But is it good? Read more and find out after the jump, and feel free to listen along to the streaming album at Amazon.
Like most hip-hop albums from artists who are still recording but are adjusting to new tastes and expectations, Age will alienate many listeners. The easiest explanation of the album is that it sounds more like Cee-Lo Green and The Goodie Mob than Goodie Mob as a full unit. A lot of this is because of the production, which takes a few risks with tempo and elements of the new electronic craze, and doesn't always find worthy return on investment. But what lurks beneath the chances they take, even among those that are creatively commendable but don't rise to the moment realistically, is a familiar feeling that true fans will be glad to have more than they regret to have experienced.
Intro track "U Don't Know What You Got " starts with a vocal soul sample from the legendary Kenny Gamble, and proceeds to give listeners the comfort of hearing Dungeon Family poet laureate Big Rube spouting his usual community-healing wordplay, though abnormally in sync with the beat instead of his usual whimsical wherever-and-whenever-I-want-to-say-stuff style. He heralds the return of the "prodigal sons", and the album goes straight to an uncomfortably fast-paced "State of the Art (Radio Killa)" which feels like defiance towards anyone who had likely assumed that the Gnarls Barkley Cee-Lo's musical preferences would push the direction of the album's sound. This it accomplishes, but in an unnerving way that will cause fans to fear that the worst could be coming.
Fortunately, Cee-Lo has retained his youthful and still-controversial bravado and releases it on "Power", whose Deliverance-inspired, banjo-strummed backdrop pairs perfectly with his sarcastic take on the subject of white supremacy and how he's apparently using tenets of the divisive philosophy to his own financial benefit. It's pretty funny, but it might take a few listens to really understand the song's uncomfortable joke/truth.
"I'm Set" is nothing less than a declaration of Goodie Mob's still-strong street ties, and firmly introduces the possibility that all along they've been members of the infamous Bloods gang. With booming timpani drumbeat, espionage-themed brass instrumentation, and unapologetic coded references to the gang (Khujo calling himself a "bloodhound", and various usage of terms like "flame" and "soo-woo"). It's so convincing, intimidating and cool that someone who's never been familiar with the history of black gangs and their roles in the community before being demonized and bastardized for their involvement with the crack cocaine epidemic might question whether or not the gangs could truly end up being an appropriate defense for America's defenseless black male youths who grew up fatherless and might otherwise be somehow even worse off without the camaraderie of others like themselves. Then you remember that when Cee-Lo refers to being with a "geeking" woman in the chorus, and using it to remind you that he's got no worries, you wonder where went the good example for the kids.
The affiliation is also apparent on on "Kolors", which arguably provides GM's most recognizable moment and offers standout spots from all four members while using the title to allow listeners to investigate for themselves the reasons why anyone would join a gang, as well as the confusing intricacies of racial issues and how they are unavoidable wherever you go.
"Vallelujah" and "Pinstripes" both utilize the type of production that aren't usual Goodie Mob comfort zones, although the latter includes T.I. dropping in with a production that shows reverence for his forbearers as well as enough menacing emcee presence to hold his own. The Janelle Monae-guested "Special Education" provides something you knew you wanted to hear but weren't sure would live up to the star-billing. Listening becomes more difficult on "Come As You Are", which is hard to describe as anything other than weird and outside of Goodie Mob's repertoire (is that Gipp on AutoTune?). "Ghost of Gloria Goodchild" is also a little bit too much of Cee-Lo dressed as Elton John/Liberace/A Chicken at the 2011 Grammys. For him, it works and it doesn't matter why. For them, it fails, and "why" is the exact question you want to ask.
While "Nexperience" may shock some of Cee-Lo's new fans with it's old Negro spiritual verse and painfully honest hook, and lyrics that put his internal conflicts on display like, "I changed the clothes but I kept my nigga nose," and harsh finale directed at a theoretic female that's earned an angry verbal attack, the song that will perhaps cause the most controversy is "Amy", whose hook celebrates "my very first white girl" with serious exuberance. You mad? They obviously don't care, and they just might find the jury divided on whether or not this experience is one that's finally become fair game to speak about with joyous recall. Still, there will be those who don't like what they hear.
What they will likely like, even if they complain about the songs' lengths, are the emotional, guilt-trippy "Understanding" where the four horsemen of the anti-Illuminati open up about being unfaithful in a committed relationship but being unable to deny their mistresses' appeal, and "Father Time", where GM leaves behind humility and reminds you that they don't need you to like them, because if you're a rap artist today you basically owe them your life.
It is probably Age Against The Machine's saving grace in terms of totality of quality that with this album Goodie Mob finishes strong, even if certain steps along the way felt as if you were being led across a tightrope above a bottomless pit. Goodie Mob could have stayed away and allowed their contributions to be nothing more than a blip on the radar of historical rap cartography. Instead, they insisted on making music again. Give them credit for not only completing the project and retaining enough of their beautifully ugly take on the state of the African-American community that exists without the promise of deserved and undiscovered opportunities, but also for being honest enough to face their status as elders in an industry and musical climate full of new listeners known for being unimpressed by legendary status, especially if it hasn't been properly tested since Y2K.
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