The Next Hip-Hop All Stars: Grill Laimbeer, Hairy Bird, and Fatrick Ewing

Danger Mouse brings the hip, Cee-Lo Brings the hop: Introducing Gnarls Barkley

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere
Downtown

Most copyright-flaunting sample genius types are happy to stay off wanted posters. But White Plains, New York-born, U of Georgia-schooled Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) turned his renegade style into a job application. His 2004 Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up record and gray economy classic, The Grey Album, made him a commodity.

The indie-rock loving, mouse-costume wearing, sample-conjoiner made good on the grand ambition suggested in his ballsily illegal act of stealing two of the largest cultural products on earth and fashioning them into his own little Hope Diamond. Rather than wind up in the copyright hoosegow—where the food is already chewed and the sheets never get clean—the Mouse won a Grammy for his production on the last Gorillaz album, then teamed up with masked loon MF Doom for last year's Adult Swim-pilfering Dangerdoom. And now the young comer has invented his first real live genuine fake band, Gnarls Barkley, with former Goodie Mobb frontman Cee-Lo Green.

Let's play follow-the-career-arc: sampling a rapper and some dead guys beyond the bounds of commerce, getting rich hanging with cartoons, solidifying cred working with a rapper no one's heard of (and more cartoons), and finally getting stylistically kinky with a real live authentic hip-hop artist who even used to be on the radio kinda. Live. That. Dream. And they say hope is dead in America. I say, enjoy the weather up in Thunder Bay, comradski.

One does have to wonder what beloved "hip-hop eccentric" Cee-Lo thinks as he watches young dudes from his native Atlanta fly over his house dangling strippers from helicopters, while he has to leverage his weirdo image by dressing up in a Clockwork Orange get-up for press release photos. He probably just finds it kinda funny.

Other people do, too. When my local drive-time hip-hop DJ cued up St. Elsewhere's single, "Crazy," 31,000 iTunes downloads into its ascent, he laughed out loud. "Guess who's singing on this? I'll give you a hint. He used to be a rapper!"

But that's just the start of the joke. Cuteness hasn't been seriously offered in hip hop for about 15 years. Perversity? Sure. Pro forma weirdness? Sadly. But the man in the mouse suit attempts to solve the problem of redeeming his tweeness by pretty much doing away with hip hop. Unlike his forebears in experimental rap spoofery—such as Prince Paul or Dan the Automator or the similarly somber DJ Shadow—Danger Mouse doesn't try to use his theoretical distance to "forward" hip hop toward some truer reality. Like so many boho white guys, this careering backpacker simply enjoys the bounty of other peoples' stuff—be it their music, personae, or names.

Gnarls Barkley (a reference to irascible NBA great-turned-lovable TV bloviator Charles Barkley) isn't just a pop klepto's nod to ripping off one last piece of private property before going fully legit. It's his copyright-wars-era take on the pop notion that a bent identity is the only identity worth having—it's all free, so take it, content not included.

Yet, unlike the intentionally there-less drift of The Grey Album and the Gorillaz record, the actual music here gnarls and barks, even bites, enough to linger on beyond the ambience. The cover of the Violent Femmes' candy-coated jizz-pimple "Gone Daddy Gone" is an unfortunate foray into brave doofiness. But, beyond that, this is a pretty deep little investigation of the troubled lover-man persona, one that's sensitive to Cee-Lo's pliant Al Green trill, his artistic strengths, industry status, and emotional concerns. Sensitive to his identity, too.

The screwy "I'm freeeeeee" chorus in "Go Go Gadget Gospel," a JBs-style show-opening bumrush, suggests he's psyched to have moved from one elastic career state to another. But the album quickly downshifts into a somber world of sonic and psychological worry. DM's tracks shift moodily and often within themselves—from sweetly pushy R&B in "Crazy" to woozy art-pop to bruiser beatscapes to downcast '70s soul to psych-funk. The motion sickness infects Cee-Lo's quicksilver, classic-to-crazed vocal styles, too. The effect is to humanize the singer's personal vertigo well beyond the usual "take me back" pouts. "Just a Thought" ruminates on the subject of suicide against a virally hot metallic beat that offers no cushion or comfort. And "The Boogie Monster" gets real horror-show, punning on penis as nemesis—all of which might be lightened if (per "Who Cares") he could lower his defenses enough to go see a shrink.

When we do take a break and try to go out dancing ("The Last Time"), it's highly ironic, and mainly only a set-up for rejection. Still, the track slams. Cee-Lo has always made openness part of his appeal, but it's weird that becoming a distraught emo shlub could be a guy's shot at getting back in the pocket. But then, there's a market for everyone.

 
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