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On the cover of his first solo record, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, Thomas "Cee-Lo" Callaway -- flanked by a church-style pipe organ and wearing a psychedelic top hat -- looks a little like a diabolical Buddha, or maybe a shaman, putting on a funhouse magic show. Light refracts off of his open hand, which beckons you to enter the temple of hip-hop. In real life, Cee-Lo believes that hip-hop is in need of some serious help -- and not of the smoke-and-mirrors variety.
"I just believe hip-hop and music in general is in despair," he says. "People want something that they can hold sacred and that is real to them and speaks to the heart of the people. All music doesn't have to convey a message all the time -- there's quality nonsense and quality irrelevance -- but I think it's time where we need something profound.
"There needs to be a revolution, and revolution is synonymous with change," he adds. "I've just come to set that in motion."
Motion has been a defining characteristic throughout the rapper's career. Most heads first heard of Cee-Lo when he blazed the chorus of OutKast's "Git Up, Git Out" on that crew's debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994. But he's best known as a member of Goodie Mob, the Atlanta-based four-man outfit that, along with OutKast and others, has helped revolutionize the distinctive sound of Southern hip-hop -- the "Dirty South" style -- and prove that you needn't have a coastal claim to be heard. With both Goodie Mob and hip-hop itself at a creative crossroads, Cee-Lo decided to step out on his own. He approached Cee-Lo Green and his Perfect Imperfectionsas a challenge to himself and the musical community.
"I'm kind of discontent with the state of hip-hop right now, and I'm not challenged by it at all," he says. "I do hope that it is inspiring for the hip-hop audience, who are my peers, to see me branching out into some uncharted territory and trying to be an addition to hip-hop -- and to lengthen the life span. Hip-hop as it is today is becoming too monotonous."
Listeners who've gotten used to the one-note flavor of commercial rap may be wary of Perfect Imperfection's stylistic hodgepodge. Open-minded listeners, however, will find plenty worth sampling here. Though it might initially feel like a complete departure from Goodie Mob's music, careful listens reveal the disc to be a thoughtful exploration of blues, soul and gospel -- all styles that helped to lay the foundation for creative rap crews, including the Mob. The album melds Cee-Lo's raspy raps with singing that has its roots in the church.
"My mother and father were ministers, so I'm greatly influenced by gospel," he says. "I believe gospel, in its praise and joyful noise, is empowering; it's positive energy. Gospel is the origin of all music. Even when you're singing the blues, it's all the same thing."
In addition to its more divinely inspired moments, the record gets grimy and greasy in plenty of places. The Dirty South, which Goodie Mob charted so colorfully on its three albums, is represented on tracks like "El Dorado Sunrise (Super Chicken)" and "Suga Baby," which enlists the Mob's Big Gipp and Backbone. The emphasis, though, is on Cee-Lo's singing.
"[The album] is in that same revolutionary spirit that Goodie Mob reveled in," he says. "I believe it was still done on the same terms -- that is, to offer an alternative."
On this point, Perfect Imperfection is a smashing success. The grooves bounce from Southern crunch to chicken-scratch funk to deep soul to hardcore rock and roll. Who else could mix the Mary Jane Girls' naughty classic "In My House" with Primus's "Wounded Knee," as Cee-Lo does on the opening track, "Bad Mutha"? (Cee-Lo says of bassman Les Claypool's former band: "They got a lot of soul and a lot of sense of humor. I can dig that. And he's a helluva bass player. He's nasty.")
Like works by Prince and Marvin Gaye, Perfect Imperfection blurs the line between the sacred, the profane and the sensual -- and often draws a connection between the three. On "Closet Freak," Cee-Lo urges a listener to "be free and express yourself" because "nastiness comes naturally." On "Medieval Times (Great Pretender)," he speaks of "a thin line between the divine and a killing machine."
"That's what this album is," he says. "It's about showcasing virtue and vice. Who better to witness that there is a God than somebody as imperfect as you? The title of the record suggests human nature -- how we're all born into human nature, which is imperfect but intentional nonetheless. So I just believe that we're God's exact intention, and the plight of all exist-ence is to master yourself. Perfect imperfection is a constant, just as yin and yang is."
Growing up in a home in southwest Atlanta headed by his God-fearing great-grandmother, grandmother and mother -- his father passed away when he was a toddler -- Cee-Lo had to sneak his exposure to secular music. Mom was none too pleased when, as a young boy, he wanted to buy Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil. She forbade "the devil's work" in her home. He often had to creep into the living room late at night to take a peek at some of his favorite videos, including Peter Gabriel's racy "Shock the Monkey."