Cee Lo Green’s voice is like an icicle made out of honey. His high-octave, high-octane delivery is icy cool, smooth like velvet, and so brightly sweet that it sometimes seems impossible. His is one of the few truly distinctive male voices in modern music, dexterous and pliable. At times, though, the sharp edge of his voice can border on droning, becoming tedious and exhausting to listen to for extended periods of time. There’s only so much treble-pushing you can listen to in one sitting before seeking solace in more glass-friendly tunes.
Indeed, Cee Lo’s voice has been a double-edged sword throughout the singer’s varied music career. While he has thrived in collaborations with a wide variety of artists, his solo albums have never hit quite the same pay dirt. With an uneven mix of experimentation and repetition, his solo releases – and to some extent his recent entrees into the mixtape game – have been a great argument for the too much of a good thing hypothesis.
Lesson learned. On The Lady Killer, Cee Lo vanquishes that demon, prospering in momentary restraint and pitch-perfect guest spots. While it’s easy to focus on blindingly bright spots like “Fuck You!” and “Bright Lights Bigger City,” the more relaxed tracks like “Wildflower” and “I Want You” deserve just as much credit for the cohesion of the album.
The Lady Killer is a Red Bull at midnight and a cup of coffee on a misty morning. It’s sunlight glinting off of a lake and a multi-colored disco ball on a packed dancefloor. It’s whatever makes your heart soar in that sort of uncontainable way. It’s a scorned lover who has moved on to bigger and better things. It’s Cee Lo Green sloughing off the one-hit-wonder label and making a joyful record to celebrate that fact. “I’m often asked what do I do for a living,” he intones on The Lady Killer’s intro theme. “And I answer, ‘I do what I want.’ ” For the first time in Cee Lo’s non-Gnarls work, that statement rings true.
The key to The Lady Killer is moderation, not a word that often springs to mind when thinking of the larger-than-life singer. While the songs are all firmly pop oriented, with splashes of sparkling instrumentation, Green is often more reserved, pocketing some of his rock candy upper register notes in favor of his caramel middle range. Producer Frasier Smith is particularly adept at developing songs that allow Cee Lo to be emotive without opening up all of the stops. It’s as if Cee Lo feels comfortable for the first time in his life, no longer pressured to sing his entire heart out on every track.
He still does sing his heart out, make no doubt about that. Particularly when Salaam Remi – best known for his work with the inimitable Amy Winehouse – is at the helm. On those tracks, like “Bodies” and “Old Fashioned,” Cee Lo really embodies his voice, digging to find every grain of soul in each note. Elsewhere, like on “Bright Lights Big City” and “Fuck You!”, Cee Lo throws restraint to the side, pushing his voice to its exuberant limits. The songs live side by side, inhabiting a world over which (with exceptions granted to legends like Sam, Otis, and Curtis) only Cee Lo could reign.
Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid strikes me as a good comparison point for The Lady Killer. Both albums thrive in a retro-futuristic vibe, a kind of throwback to old styles that doesn’t bother backdating the instrumentation and production. The Lady Killer is a polished diamond ring in plush velvety box, both inviting and stunning in the same way as Monae’s Metropolis. Using horns, strings, and brassy synthesizers, Cee Lo creates a loungey film noir mood; with his voice, he splashes that black and white seen with electric colors.
“Love Gun” is one of the album’s strongest tracks, an explosion of pop music that underscores the very reasons for The Lady Killer’s success. It’s perhaps the catchiest song to involve gunshots since M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” and features a phenomenal guest spot from Lauren Bennett evocative of Shirley Bassey’s sassiest moments. The instrumentation is hectic but contained, and Cee Lo is present but not overbearing. The song is straight fire.
A note on the subject matter: This album is sexy. It’s about wanting sex, getting sex, needing sex, losing sex. A brief scan of the album titles will give you a general feel: “Satisfied,” “I Want You,” “Fool For You,” “No One’s Gonna Love You,” etc. etc. And that’s ignoring the anthemic “Fuck You!” The Lady Killer is arrogant and sensitive at once, running the gamut of passions that accompany a lovesick heart. Cee Lo is a sensual dude, and if his voice wasn’t enough to tell you that, I suggest you take a listen to his lyrics.
The Lady Killer is a diamond from a singer who has spent his time in the rough. There’s very little I don’t find enjoyable in these forty-five minutes, and more than a handful of the songs get stuck in my head. The astonishing success of “Fuck You!” despite it’s blue language is proof enough – there’s not much that can stop these tunes. Some will shrug this album off as too poppy to be artistic, too light to be meaningful; those people are at the wrong party.