Cee-Lo - Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine

Much as it'll be loved again, rock's undergoing one of its more earnest phases, meaning that the shelves of record shops stare out with covers featuring jobbing musicians grimly scanning the distance for something to give their laboured songs some purpose. Knowing that their success is based on a rhyming dictionary and a few variations on the passing from one chord to another, which share much more than the sense of dull predictability, these rock acts play it safe and leave the more bizarre ideas for album covers in the drawer kept closed until failure beckons close by their rally-driving drummer.

I'd go dancing in the streets then for hip-hop, the only music in which album covers rarely concern themselves with taste or humility, featuring anything from the rapper on a hospital trolley having just been shot in the eye, poker playing bears wearing dressing gowns or, as with ...Is The Soul Machine, reflections of Cee-Lo Green's playing in his dressing up box. Whether a bon viveur in a biker jacket, a tourist in an ill-fitting Hawaiian shirt or, most bizarrely of all, a tennis player with terylene headband and Adidas fleece that strains to hold Cee-Lo's bulk within it, he appears equally uncomfortable in all of them and one wonders what passed through his mouth when presented with an outfit last seen in public during Wimbledon '79. You can bet your last bottle of Cristall that whatever it was, it was far from, "Hell yeah, me and the brothers be down with Borg! New balls, motherfucker!"

Cee-Lo Green was once a member of Dirty South rappers Goodie Mob before heading solo a few years ago as a contemporary of OutKast. Having recorded a debut in 2002, Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections, the full range of Cee-Lo's unique style was scattered over rap, funk and soul but despite a big push by Arista to promote the album alongside OutKast's similar Stankonia, it was just too damn weird for most. Free-spirited, imaginative and bouncing from sleazy funk and lo-fi soul to spirited pop and breezily romantic soul, ...Is The Soul Machine, whilst still strange, is a real find, a modern soul album that's able to stand alongside the classic soul of Parliament whilst keeping an eye on the freaky rhythms of Funkadelic.

The album's strangest moment comes when the sound of horns and Cee-Lo's sisters step back to give the man some space. Having seen Cee-Lo on the cover, you'd be expecting a deep rumbling voice to break out of the speakers, and don't bother checking the CD player for a a 45rpm setting, but Cee-Lo sounds like the answer to anyone who's wondered how Chris Eubank performing Eminem might sound. Bizarre, in case you're wondering, but given that his sisters break him into the album by declaring him to be the soul machine, he gets to cut loose-fitting rhythms from the cream of hip-hop producers, Timbaland and The Neptunes included, over which he sings/raps snatches of little rhymes, dazzling word association and sweet soul music across eighteen tracks.

With a run of opening tracks - Soul Machine, The Art Of Noise and Living Again - that are ready for mainstream radio, ...Is The Soul Machine is outstanding from the off. Few other albums move to greatness as swiftly as this but unlike, say, Beyoncé's Dangerously In Love, which fades badly after the fantastic opening track, Cee-Lo, barring the occasional stumble, keeps the album ticking at this level over most of the remaining songs. On Childz Play, Cee-Lo and Ludacris spill quickfire wordplay over a playful little music box/guitar riff whilst The One is simply terrific, sampling Public Enemy No. 1 whilst heavy soul rolls in over it.

With I Am Selling Soul, Let's Stay Together and All Day Love Affair being the kind of tracks that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Isaac Hayes' Black Moses, the second half of the album has a darker set of beats, particularly Glockappella and Evening News, the second of which features the man with the greatest name in rap, Sir Cognac The Conversation, a man who you can never imagine in slumming it in own-brand jeans and sneakers.

For too long, I've been waiting for a soul album that would mix the loose funk of Sly And The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On with the frantic use of samples, loops and raps of Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet. Neither album ever gave a hint of what was coming next and whether it's a freedom to what as he pleases, thereby making it work somehow, or a genuine spirit of knowing what'll work in the chaos, ...Is The Soul Machine is often fantastic, mostly great and, very rarely, only getting by. The pleasure of this album is a fearless burst of pop, soul, hip-hop and funk and with his stranger moments spun out of the mix, ...Is The Soul Machine is, like Alicia Keys' The Diary Of... or Andre 3000's half of Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below, a superb album of modern soul, itself undergoing a revival and, on the evidence of this album, there's every chance that Cee-Lo will be at the heart of it.

Overall

8

out of 10

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