Cee-Lo Green — barefoot, in a white V-neck T-shirt and black-silk pajama pants — is perched aslant on a couch in a suite on the tenth floor of a Gramercy hotel room. Elsewhere in the tidy room: a cheeseburger and French fries in an aluminum-foil takeout container, opened but untouched; a bottle of as-seen-on-Entourage Aviòn Tequila; assorted tequila tumblers; a pair of oversize rock-star shades; ginger ale; and, laid out neatly on the TV stand by the flat screen, Cee-Lo’s jewelry, including a bright, shiny diamond-studded watch, necklace, and complicated-looking bracelet. For the entirety of our conversation, Cee-Lo does not budge from his sideways sofa position.
It’s understandable. On this particular day, Cee-Lo is in the thick of things for promotion of The Lady Killer (out November 9) and he’s trying to pace himself. There have been interviews since the morning, an imminent radio-show call-in to make, and, later on, a music-video shoot that promises to go into the early hours (In fact, Vulture’s interview slot is delayed slightly while a tuxedo for the shoot is approved). That means the conversation is stilted at first, with Cee-Lo offering polite, terse responses to questions he’s possibly already fielded several times that day. But he warms up fast. And, quickly, he’s serving up wide grins alongside candid talk. Also, cocaine analogies.
“Left to my own devices, my album would be powder,” Cee-Lo declares. “Raw powder. And of course we all know, if you have any kind of common knowledge — it can’t be completely raw. They just can’t handle it like that.” He’s talking about appeasing the record label, and he knows of what he speaks.
The last time Cee-Lo put out a solo album, 2004’s Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine, it was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored, and seemed to cement Cee-Lo’s status (first burnished as a member of beloved Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob) as a cult act. But two short years later, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was a monster, and Cee-Lo was everywhere. 2008 brought another successful Gnarls album, which Danger Mouse followed up with his usual flurry of eclectic projects. From Cee-Lo, it was radio silence.
Until “Fuck You.” Released in the doldrums of late August, the big booming track — a cheery dismissal of a money-grubbing ex-girlfriend — exploded on impact. “The morning it was released, I left for London,” Cee-Lo recalls. “It’s about an eight-hour flight. By the time I landed in London, it was a hit. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Previous Lady Killer releases had gone unheralded, but the success of “Fuck You” seemed to launch a press push overnight. So, Vulture asks: Were you a priority at the record label before “Fuck You”?
Cee-Lo smiles off the implication of impropriety. “That would be me being too emotionally involved. It’s not like that. This is our business.” We press — “Crazy” was a huge hit. Where was the big machine when it was time for Cee-Lo solo? (For the record: Lady Killer’s coming on Elektra and Gnarls Barkley was signed to Downtown, but both are subsidiaries of WMG).
“I didn’t talk much in Gnarls Barkley,” Green says by way of explanation. “I had a chance to be the pet monster, you know? They were like, just let him sing. Now, I was signed as Gnarls Barkley. Cee-Lo Green didn’t have a deal. Gnarls Barkley had a deal. And a hit record.” He continues, magnanimously: “There’s logic to it. They’re trying to put it under a microscope. They say, ‘Well the solo albums, on paper, were underachievers so to speak. And that’s Cee-Lo Green left to his own devices. Gnarls Barkley, this is Cee-Lo Green under the fine tuning of Danger Mouse.’” But “Fuck You” changed that. “Now it’s becoming apparent — we are starting from scratch. They’re having to trust me with my own devices again.”
It’s ironic, then, the birthing of “Fuck You” came about via a compromise with the label. Cee-Lo collaborated with neophyte radio king Bruno Mars on the smash and has since chafed publicly at the implication that he was gifted a hit. “When I first met [Bruno’s production team the Smeezingtons], they were solicited as staff songwriters,” Cee-Lo explains. “It wasn’t my idea originally, but I felt like we were in a new space so let’s try it. Like, there are teams that take care of shit like this, so why not? Initially it made me kind of uncomfortable and awkward. I did go through a couple of growing pains.” He unequivocally dismisses any rumors of bad blood, but does admit — with another toothy grin — “I can’t say I would not have liked to have come up with it all alone.”
The rest of Lady Killer was done without co-songwriters, but that doesn’t mean no one else had input. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Cee-Lo took the bold step of explaining that while he enjoys Lady Killer and everything, he ultimately preferred Stray Bullets — a preview mixtape cobbled together from tracks that didn’t make the cut for Lady Killer and released for free online. It’s a remarkably honest remark, but he doesn’t back off it now: “The reason I said I liked Stray Bullets better is because there’s no politics involved. No bureaucracy. None of that shit.”
The implication speaks volumes. And then again: Listening to The Lady Killer, you won’t hear compromise. There’s “Fuck You,” of course, which lives on the radio as the decidedly less emphatic “Forget You,” although that’s not what the kids are singing. There’s a Band of Horses cover. On one song, the sound of gunshots is laced throughout. Yes, relative to the lofty standards of Cee-Lo’s early solo albums, it is more accessible. No, that isn’t a bad thing.
And ultimately, he’s at peace with the decision behind consciously trying to make a radio-pop album: “It’s definitely another chapter in my novel. And I would say my career is starting to resemble something Quentin Tarantino would direct.” But before we wrap up, Cee-Lo excitedly mentions that Stray Bullets — his “raw powder” — may at one point see an official release. Which could be dangerous. “You’ve got to cut it with something,” he pointed out earlier. “You don’t want to kill your clientele. You have to cook in order to consolidate, so it goes from powder to hard rock. It’s cheaper and cost efficient. Hard rock, that’s what they want.”