Probably best known for his collaborations with his fellow Dungeon Family members OutKast, the former Goodie Mob vocalist Cee-Lo Green is a man of many talents, equally adept behind the decks or in front of the microphone. The son of preacher parents, he's a phenomenal singer whose style draws on all the great Southern church soulmen, from James Carr and Otis Redding to OV Wright and Al Green; but he's also a dazzling rapper, with a distinctive flow and a firm moral code that sets him apart from less thoughtful exponents of the form. As he puts it, when pondering the age-old conflict between gospel faith and R&B commerce in "I Am Selling Soul": "I airbrush atrocity with philosophy."
His own faith, clearly, is the source of both Cee-Lo's world view and his art. "All in the mind is mechanic," he claims in "The Art of Noise". "The dynamic happens when the divine starts to intervene." And by the sound of it, the divine is intervening pretty heavily here. The mandatory contributions from The Neptunes and Timbaland are rather put in the shade by Cee-Lo's own grooves, which seamlessly yoke together fresh modern beats with the kind of soaring instrumental coloration he's learnt from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Soul sermons like "Sometimes" and "Living Again" reveal a distinctly Seventies social conscience, too, recalling the worldly wise compassion of such artists as James Brown and Bill Withers, respectively: "If I could write one song to right all wrongs, I would if I could," he acknowledges in the latter. "But in retrospect, a little bad is good."
While Cee-Lo's as guilty as the next playa of laying on the smooth with a trowel when it comes to chatting up the ladies - witness the infectious "The One" - he's less inclined to indulge in the familiar gangsta posturing. As far as I can make out, there are no mentions of drugs or crime on ... Is the Soul Machine, and the only time he reluctantly reels out the guns, on "Glockapella", he apologises beforehand for lapsing into "all this battle-rap shit", and takes pains to ensure we realise that he's not doing it out of bravado. Later on, in "Die Trying", he confronts the problem of how a rapper like himself struggles to sell records in a gangsta climate, and how tempting it is to follow suit. But, as he concludes: "I could be a pretty good thug, but it wouldn't equate to a great me."
He's prepared to practise what he preaches, too. In "When We Were Friends", he urges a cousin inexorably drawn to trouble to try to make something better of his life: "When we talk, I wanna hear you been productive," he appeals, "but it never comes up." Still, at least Cee-Lo is leading by example, with an album bursting at the seams with intelligence, compassion, inventiveness and genuine soul power, a worthy successor to his old chums' genre-stretching Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.