If Cee Lo Green's new solo album sounds calculated to generate hits and appeal to the widest possible audience, at the expense of his usual freewheeling inventiveness, that's because, without any attempt to disguise the fact, it is. In a recent interview, the singer explained that he had reined in his more outre creative urges on The Lady Killer in order to achieve the megastardom he feels has been eluding him. "For too long I've been underground and underdog," he said. "This should not be a kamikaze mission."
His gambit, accordingly, has been to release a song about betrayal, bitterness and financial inadequacy entitled "Fuck You". This might seem gloriously misguided to anyone who doesn't remember "Crazy", the eerie Gnarls Barkley number about mental instability that Green, with his super-sized vocal talent, turned into a worldwide smash in 2006. Sure enough, "Fuck You" is one of this year's most uplifting releases, with a chorus that makes you want to punch the air and imprecate cheerfully at total strangers. It spent two weeks at number one in the UK last month and has already scored more than 17 million hits on YouTube.
The success of Gnarls Barkley, Green's collaboration with uber-producer Danger Mouse, appears to have galvanised the one-time rapper, who made his name with Atlanta, Georgia, outfit Goodie Mob in the 90s. His first two solo albums, released in 2002 and 2004, were adventurous mishmashes, expanding out of hip-hop into soul, R&B and the freakier regions of funk. The only constrained thing about them was their commercial appeal.
On this new album, the 36-year-old has expunged all trace of hip-hop so he can focus almost entirely on radio-friendly soul. Helping him spruce up his act is a heavyweight team of pop producers including Salaam Remi and Paul Epworth. Green's new persona, according to the album's intro, will be a sort of weaponised Barry White: "When it comes to ladies," he rumbles over faux-Bond theme music, "I have a licence to kill."
Thankfully, his eccentricities have survived the purge and this is by no means the straightforward lover-man record it purports to be. More often than not, Green is grappling with rejection (on "Fuck You" and "It's OK"), loneliness (on "Please") or those unsexy moments when the thrill of romance has seeped away. His response to this last, on "I Want You", is brilliantly unexpected given his supposed lady-killer credentials: "I want you to run away with me and experience something new," he tells his deflated lover, proposing a trip to a remote island to revive her spirits. "Oh I'll even quit my job," he hollers. "Loving you, I'll make it my job."
It helps that Green can make even the most crushing situations sound festive, as on "Fuck You" (or "Forget You", the cannily expurgated version). But the party atmosphere does let up: the album's most arresting moment is a noir-ish murder ballad called "Bodies", with skeletal production from Chad Hugo of the Neptunes.
There are just two moments of straight-up, undiluted celebration here: "Bright Lights Bigger City", a perfectly serviceable ode to the joys of Saturday nights on the town; and "Satisfied", which Tom Jones in his prime might have deemed unacceptably exuberant. The album's only major misstep, it hints what The Lady Killer could have been if Cee Lo had really tried to make a conventional record. Luckily, his idiosyncrasies have proven too potent to repress. When the next album comes around, his burgeoning fan-base should know what to expect.