Gnarls Barkley | St. Elsewhere (Downtown)

With St. Elsewhere, Cee-Lo has officially left the hip-hop stratosphere, passing Andre 3000 on their mutual mission to Mars.

 

Trying to put Cee-Lo in a box wouldn’t work. The Atlanta rapper-turned-question mark has consistently made fantastic, outside-the-box music, and each album he releases seems to chronicle his journey from the dirty South to outer space. His voice is raw and soulful, and he’s a rapper, rocker, crooner, and funk extraordinaire all in one—often all four on the same song.

With St. Elsewhere, Cee-Lo has officially left the hip-hop stratosphere, passing Andre 3000 on their mutual mission to Mars. The “I’ll Be Around” and “Gettin’ Grown”–type records of his earlier releases are left behind, and with producer Danger Mouse by his side, he’s developed his rock-rap, funk-pop alter ego, Gnarls Barkley. Danger Mouse provides the beats for Cee-Lo’s musical experiment, and the London-based producer shows off his own unique style that is some parts rap, some parts rock, and some parts something else. He recently worked with MF Doom (Dangerdoom) and Gorillaz (Demon Days), and with Gnarls we see again why he’s in high demand.

The originality and creativity of the Gnarls Barkley name matches the album, one that sounds like something aliens would bump in their hovercrafts. It’s certainly neither pure rap nor pure rock, but moves song to song along a musical spectrum that few albums can claim. The jumps and shapeshifts hurt the momentum at times, but the final product certainly succeeds in its mission to bust the word “genre” into pieces.

What Team Gnarls gets right, they really get right. There is “Smiley Faces,” the St. Elsewhere version of Andre 3000’s “Hey Ya.” It’s an incredibly original musical creation, one that channels ’60s soul and dumps space-rock sound effects on top to make something entirely new. There is “Gone Daddy Gone,” an infectious cover of the Violent Femmes, with a beat bolstered by Danger Mouse to fit Cee-Lo’s best Gordon Gano impersonation. “Who Cares” lets Cee-Lo croon over a musical backdrop both frantic and delicate, rhyming, “it’s deep how you can be so shallow.” The album’s massively successful single “Crazy” is as smooth as music can get, with Cee-Lo’s soothing voice laid perfectly over the melody Danger Mouse provides. Yet the most impressive song is “The Last Time,” the album’s final track. While all of the other songs attempt to combine musical parts, this is by far Gnarls’ most perfect Frankenstein. Hip-hop percussion is overlaid by hard rock guitars, both which do a flawless job at showcasing the soulful brilliance of Cee-Lo’s voice.

At some points, the attempts at creating musical monsters fail and turn from music to noise, like the virtually unlistenable “Necromancing” and “Transformer.” For the most part, though, the dynamic duo gets it right, with each song riding that musical spectrum in entirely new way. From track to track, you are listening to an experiment, composed of musical parts pulled out of boiling beakers and dusty jars, and Gnarls is the mad scientist behind it all.


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