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Cee-Lo and N.E.R.D. Don't Need No Labels for Their Genre-Bending Albums

By Tony Green | Posted 4/24/2002

Back in the '80s, some music producers voiced their opposition to "virtuosity," envisioning a future where all music would be judged less by technical prowess than by the quality of ideas. That's a nice stance, but it presupposes two things. Namely, that most pop music isn't already judged that way (I haven't seen any albums by the virtuoso Brazilian guitar duo the Assad Brothers on the Billboard charts recently), and that the then-growing digital technology would be a great equalizer, expanding the definition of "musician" to those not possessing the requisite chops--which assumes that using technology doesn't require chops and, furthermore, that virtuosity is purely physical.

It's all kind of irrelevant now; at the time those producers raised it, that "quality of ideas" dictum was already being practiced by DJs and rappers. But even those who were hip to that fact could never have predicted a future that produced albums such as N.E.R.D.'s In Search of . . . and Cee-Lo's Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections.

These discs gene-splice everything from gospel and soul to hard rock and psychedelia. And they're sure to be saddled with some nutty label ("alternative," "progressive"), ignoring the fact that both discs (like similar-minded nuggets from Parental Advisory, Missy Elliott, Society of Soul, and the brilliant mid-'90s Michael Ivey project B.Y.O.B.) affirm the idea-intensive heart that has fueled hip-hop from the very beginning. Hip-hop/rap fosters the kind of conceptual virtuosity that happens when you practice listening and understanding (as a DJ/producer) as opposed to merely playing.

Or in N.E.R.D.'s case, when you practice both. The folks behind N.E.R.D. (No One Ever Really Dies) are vocalist Shay and the Neptunes, aka Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams. The pair--former bandmates with über-producer Timbaland--are best known for being among the most in-demand production houses in the hip-hop biz, having crafted tracks for everyone from Jay-Z to Kelis. In Search of . . . will be a tough sell to fans expecting to hear something similar to their glossily funky studio productions. The disc, originally meant to be a left-of-center hip-hop record (and close enough to being released as such that it was widely reviewed; see Music, July 18, 2001,, was rerecorded late last year with a funk-rock band replacing the samples and sequences, further puzzling folks looking to figure out from where the fellas were coming. Hip-hop that translates into rock and soul--who knew?

Anybody not weaned on a diet of mercury, for starters. Imagining Neptunes nuggets like Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" or Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" as realized by, say Fishbone or some members of the Atlanta soul-rock crew (remember Follow for Now?) doesn't take too much imagination. It's the pungency of the central motif that works, whether it's played on a multimedia PC or a Hohner Clavinet keyboard. And In Search of . . . is full of tasty, memorable hooks, grooves, and textures. N.E.R.D.'s rock flavors trump most of what the rock crowd is doing right now: the Gary Numan-esque synth that underpins "Things Are Getting Better," the steam-drill bass line that powers the bashing "Lapdance," the "Strawberry Fields Forever"-referencing intro to "Stay Together." On the other hand, only a select few of the retro-soul crowd have produced a hook as hummable as the one at the foundation of the dark "Bobby James."

That producers are familiar with a wildly divergent range of sources should be no surprise at this late date. But this album works not because of its diversity but because of its cohesiveness. From the woozy alt-rockish "Provider" to the George Clinton-esque vocals on "Run to the Sun" to the New Wave kitsch of "Baby Doll," it all moves seamlessly. Scratch the surface and you still hear hip-hop. "Am I High" spins on a lockstep hook that, dressed up in digital dance shoes, would likely have made Clear Channel's hip-hop playlist. Instead, the 'Tunes take it into dreamy soul-rock territory on the bridge, then confound you with a rap on top of it all.

Even though it delves into different sonic territory, Cee-Lo's fusion is just as solid, possibly even more so. Cee-Lo and cohorts in the Georgia-based Dungeon Family (OutKast, Society of Soul, and his group Goodie Mob) have never delved far from their red-clay funk roots. The Neptunes do a stunning job of visiting new territory; Cee-Lo--who mans the producer's boards for this disc--does a stunning job of finding fresh dope in the freakadelic territory he's always occupied. Cee-Lo Green bristles with death-funk guitar riffs ("Live"), Memphis-leaning horns ("One for the Road"), and sweat-inducing organ fills ("El Dorado Sunrise [Super Chicken]").

But the catalyst is Cee-Lo himself, who has custom-made his album to his own particular talents. It is hard to imagine either a rapper or a singer (or some of the less imaginative singsong rappers like Nelly) riding the amped-up Motown groove of "Closet Freak" with any degree of panache. Cee-Lo, a formidable alloy of both elements, slips in and out of rapid-fire verbalisms and gospel-throated melismas with uncanny effectiveness.

But he doesn't limit his desert-island discs to the usual soul and funk icons. He is also a fiend for the Doors, Mötley Crüe, and the Velvet Underground, but he has integrated them into his own aesthetic so completely you hardly notice--which is a good thing, since nothing is more tiresome than another patchwork rap-rock fusion. Cee-Lo's deeply rooted blues-soul aesthetic functions like roux in a gumbo--the stuff that brings all the elements together and makes them do the nasty. On "El Dorado Sunrise" he recycles a classic metal riff through a B-3 organ prism, cranks up the double-time rhythmic juice, and lets it all roll. "Bass Head Jazz," with its late-period Miles Davis inflections, revisits the ambient territory explored by OutKast in "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" (from 1998's Aquemini).

The boundary-pushing makes it sound all the more satisfying when Cee-Lo returns home. On the introspective tango-esque soulster "Gettin' Grown," the former choirboy waxes philosophical, vowing to "keep following God" and admitting that "life is learning as you go." Musically, it sounds like he has followed his own advice, delivering a musical sermon that testifies to years of absorbing and digesting whatever musical information happens onto his radar. Can I get an amen?

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