By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Cee-Lo has long demonstrated an intuitive feel for reworking gospel, both in sound and in vision. (He was a co-founder of the Atlanta rap crew Goodie Mob, has released two neo-soul solo albums, and also collaborated on the Southern rap project known as the Dungeon Family.) But with Gnarls Barkley, that talent for gospel reinvention is pushed as far as possible, even over chaotic pastiches such as “Storm Coming.” And without ever invoking them directly, St. Elsewhere is an homage to Cee-Lo’s deceased parents (both of whom were ministers in Atlanta), and to his own enduring pain over losing them in his youth.
“It’s definitely a blood type, an inheritance,” he says of his roots. “Gospel is synonymous with praise. I’m humble before my maker when I sing. I’m praising him not due to what the song is about, but in the motivation, somewhere in my mind — the memory of some pain, something tragic or traumatic, like when I lost my mother . . .” He trails off for a moment. “It may not be in the actual song, but it’s always there in the way I am grounded and in what has driven me to art.
“This is probably my most honest work,” he admits. “Prior to this record, I’ve heard comments that I am almost too good to be true. I’m always optimistic, I hardly ever have anything negative to say. I’ve always tried to be encouraging, and I’m very appreciative and grateful. Music spared me. But spared me from what? That’s where Gnarls Barkley comes in. No, I’m not too good to be true, I’m very human. This record opened me up and allowed me to continue to do what I want to do, which is to speak on behalf of people. But not from an elevated platform, but to speak for the people, by the people, right there within the people.”
The greatest strength of St. Elsewhere lies in its inversion of one of hip-hop’s greatest strengths: Its lyrics barely recognize the world of current popular culture, instead tunneling deeply inside private experience. Even Danger Mouse’s samples are largely so obscure that his constructions — while ’80s-sounding in lots of ways — are ultimately hermetic and dense, rather than popular in the way we think of most pop music. It’s a scrambled dystopia of funk and brittle rock. You will find a glimmer of spiritual salvation at the end of the St. Elsewhere journey, but only after facing your own truths — even if that means admitting, as Cee-Lo does on “Just a Thought,” that sometimes he’d rather check out once and for all.
“ ‘Just a Thought’ is exactly what it is,” he says. “You cannot be held in contempt for something that crosses your mind. I’m alive and well, and here to testify that I myself have been that person, have been up against that wall. But obviously I’m here; I have endured and overcome.
“I don’t want people to misconstrue it as present-day for me. The album is very introspective, I’ve experienced it here and there. There’s a lifetime of experience there. But we’re still trying to entertain you. I was surprised that my most personal writing was as entertaining as it was.
“So the record is triumphant,” he concludes. “There’s a silver lining to all of it. Even the last line of that song is ‘I’m fine.’ ”
Gnarls Barkley will perform at the 49th Grammy Awards, Sun., Feb. 11 (broadcast at 8 p.m. on CBS). They’ll also perform Feb. 14 at the Fusion 2007 festival in Las Vegas, with Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Spank Rock and others.