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It was the top of 2000 and CeeLo was aggy. Goodie Mob, the group CeeLo was part of alongside Big Gipp, Khujo and T-Mo, had just released their third studio album, World Party, right before the new year started. He hated it. Goodie Mob’s first two albums, Soul Food and Still Standing — both classics — are partial responses to the New York-dominated sentiment that Southern rap acts didn’t record music of substance. Those albums are somber and dense pieces of work about poverty and grief. Goodie Mob was dead serious, and during the mid ’90s, they needed to be. But things were changing in 1999, with the glitzy entrepreneurial success of Cash Money and No Limit. The South proved they had something to say — why couldn’t they get some scratch? And maybe bounce a little bit, too? So World Party was notably lighter and celebratory. It was an album about enjoying the excess of success and widening the group’s reach, working with New York-based producers like D-Dot and Easy Mo Bee, as well as a young up-and-comer named Kanye West.
Artistic direction wasn’t the only issue CeeLo had. After five years of relentless touring, he was fatigued with the road, the main stream of income for the group. He had just started a relationship with a new woman, Christina Johnson, who had two daughters, and Lo enjoyed playing Mr. Dad.
But, probably most importantly, he got his first taste of real solo success. The previous year, he appeared alongside Lauryn Hill on “Do You Like the Way,” one of the standouts from Carlos Santana’s Supernatural, a blockbuster album that would go on to sell more than 30 million copies and win Album of the Year at the 2000 Grammys.
The success of “Do You Like the Way” was also when CeeLo reached his boiling point: He was suspicious that one of the managers was stealing publishing royalties, according to his 2013 autobiography, Everybody’s Brother, written with Big Gipp and David Wild.
“Dude has some money from me, and I’m getting it back,” he told Gipp.
So, on the eve of a Goodie Mob tour with the Black Eyed Peas, CeeLo pulled a gun on the manager. Gipp was able to talk the usually jovial CeeLo off the ledge. But Lo was done. CeeLo went home, back to Fayetteville, Georgia, married Johnson and had his first child with her, a son named Kingston.
Within the Dungeon Family, the groundbreaking collective Goodie Mob came up with alongside OutKast, CeeLo was known as the water of the group — because what he had to say was “crystal clear,” according to Gipp in Everybody’s Brother. To the outside world, however, he was the spiritual core, the member who brought purpose, weight and theatrical flourish to the group’s music. Once it was clear he was done, events moved quickly. LaFace Records released the group, with Gipp, Khujo and T-Mo going the independent rout, while CeeLo signed a solo deal with Arista, who had recently replaced founder Clive Davis with L.A. Reid.
It would be a year of family time before CeeLo seriously started to craft his solo debut, CeeLo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, one of the most wildly ambitious and experimental debuts to come out of the major-label system in the 21st century.
The two most important things to note about this album: Reid, the executive who originally signed Goodie Mob to LaFace Records in the ’90s, gave CeeLo almost unprecedented creative control. No longer was Lo under the tutelage of Organized Noize, the brilliant production trio of Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown, who crafted the dense, sometimes claustrophobic Dungeon Family sound. On his debut, CeeLo worked almost exclusively by himself. With the exception of a couple eccentric guests, like Gipp and John Popper from Blues Traveler, this is CeeLo’s baby. He produced and wrote every song on the album.
The other thing you should know: CeeLo wears his musical influences on his sleeve. And they are vast. Lo’s relationship with music starts with his parents, who were both ministers. His father wasn’t in his life but his mother was and she was against secular music, giving him plenty of opportunity to rebel. So, on the weekends he would go to his aunt Audrey’s house and watch Soul Train and flick through his uncle Ricky’s impressive collection of music. CeeLo’s musical education started here, listening to music from ’60s and ’70s soul legends like James Brown and Jackie Wilson and rock legends like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. In the mid ’80s, Lo, who at this point was a street tough known as Chickenhead, found hip-hop: The first rap record he purchased was Down By Law from Queens pioneer MC Shan, according to Everybody’s Brother. He soon became mesmerized by MCs like Melle Mel — still his favorite rapper of all time — Public Enemy, and Too $hort. These three rappers — with their mix of swagger, consciousness and vulgarity — probably best explains CeeLo’s artistic trajectory.
Around this time, a teenaged CeeLo found himself at the Dungeon, a basement masquerading as a studio located under an apartment Wade was renting off of Delowe in Atlanta. André Benjamin, better known as André 3000, was a classmate of Chickenhead at an alternative school (referred to as both Frank McClaren High and McClarin Success Academy) and he brought him to the Dungeon. And this is where Chickenhead turned into CeeLo. Lo was also one of the youngest artists at the Dungeon, so he was observant and shy, listening more than rapping. His first recorded verse would come on “Git Up, Git Out” off of OutKast’s debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik; CeeLo received Rhyme of the Month in The Source for his debut. After that appearance, he would officially form with the rest of the Goodie Mob, joining OutKast on LaFace, and crafting their debut Soul Food inside of Curtis Mayfield’s home recording studio in Atlanta.
So, there are decades of history and genres infused into CeeLo’s brain. And he just unleashed it all for his debut. CeeLo was 26 when he recorded the bulk of his first record, but he was grizzled. Imperfections is overflowing with ideas and genres, from hip-hop to funk to soul to jazz and even country. From his Goodie Mob days, the central theme of CeeLo’s music has been liberation, whether it was from the trap or from the oppressive hold of commercialization in hip-hop. On his debut, he is focused on liberation from any kind of creative confinement. There are barely two songs here that feature the same genre, which is impressive considering that the album is a beefy 73 minutes long. And while there is something visceral about how CeeLo performs, there is also strategy and narrative here. Imperfections begins with “Bad Mutha,” a song that samples liberally from Primus’ experimental percussion-heavy track “Wounded Knee.” The song is a clash of sounds, with the almost serene production juxtaposed with CeeLo’s sweaty screams. It’s a disorienting experience for fans who might want “Cell Therapy” Lo.
So what does he do? Follow it up with “Big Ole Words (Damn),” the only pure rap song on the album. On the track, he gives the most dexterous performance of his career, completely overwhelming a beat that is nothing more than a drum track and a faint flute. On the song, he explains his departure from rap:
In no fashion have I lost my passion for the pen
It’s just that lately life has been a lost less inspiring
To tell you the truth trials and tribulations is very tiring
I gotta play a little game of gimmick and gun firing
I’m not inspiring to be any lower or higher than
I get equal as in to eye to eye again
I’m the truth, I’m complicated, I’m all ready but try again
I’ve got to die once to never ever die again
And what I believe within I engrave within my skin
And one thing that I ain’t is a saint without a sin
How could there be a now if there never was a then?
The song is a tease. He’s not interested in giving fans what they think they want. The track ends with Lo giggling, saying what feels like the album’s thesis statement: “Now can I do my shit?”
“Closet Freak (Club Mix),” the closest the album had to a hit (albeit a very minor one), is next, and the song is a sexed up, disgustedly funky ode to Rick James. The song isn’t explicit, as James could be, but rather, “Closet Freak” is about teasing out someone’s deeply tucked, depraved tendencies. The track is a blast and disproves the idea that CeeLo didn’t want to have fun on the World Party album — he just wanted to do it on his terms.
This wouldn’t be a CeeLo album without some preaching. While with Goodie Mob it could feel like Lo was lecturing the listener, the messaging in Imperfections is more insular, like he’s questioning choices he made. Album standout “El Dorado Sunrise (Super Chicken)” is a somber justification for leaving Goodie Mob. On the first verse he sings:
Listen now, I got a story to tell
About a bird who wanted to fly away
You see, he knew that he could and he probably would
But his family said they needed him to stay
But his spirit is strong and he’s been waiting so long
And he don’t really want nobody to tell him daddy wrong
So excuse me, I wanna go and kiss the sky
’Cause these wings that I was given were intended to fly
Upon its release, CeeLo Green and His Perfect Imperfections got compared to OutKast’s brillant Stankonia — Spin called it Stankonia II: Eclectic Boogaloo; it’s a bit unfair, as Stankonia was a brain melting, psychedelic experience that looked ahead, while CeeLo’s album is his way of paying homage to the voices that raised him. It was a risky gambit for an album that came out months before Eminem and Nelly would drop carefully constructed commercial behemoths. And the gambit didn’t quite pay off. Imperfections was not successful at the time. It was released on April 23, 2002, debuting at No. 11 on the Billboard charts. The album only sold 57,000 copies in its first week. Making matters worse, only a year later André 3000 would dominate the cultural zeitgeist with The Love Below, a spiritual descendant to Imperfections.
As for CeeLo, he would return in 2004 with his follow up, CeeLo Green... Is the Soul Machine, which was mostly a concession. The album had CeeLo rapping more; it also featured appearances from commercial heavyweights like Timbaland, Pharrell, Jazze Pha and Ludacris. That album also bricked, and he was soon dropped by Arista. In fact, CeeLo wouldn’t find real success until he randomly linked with Danger Mouse and formed Gnarls Barkley, releasing one of the defining songs of the decade, “Crazy.” That song would garner almost universal acclaim and commercial success, winning a Grammy and reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And even though the track started surging a full four years after CeeLo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, that album’s chromosomes are all over the song: from the way it draws on genres from the past to make contemporary pop — in this case a splash of ’70s psychedelic soul combined with a thumping spaghetti western instrumental — to the unhinged vocal performance. To put it more bluntly: You don’t get a “Crazy” without Imperfections. After all of these years, the audience became hip to what CeeLo was doing. That’s the thing about full liberation, it can take some time.
Dimas Sanfiorenzo is a New York-based editor and writer. He has reported and written pieces for various publications, including Complex, BBC, BET, Essence, Vibe and more. He is currently the Editorial Director of Okayplayer and OkayAfrica.