Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Hip-Hop Is Dreaming

***1/2

CEE-LO
Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections
Arista

***1/2

JOHN FORTÉ
I, John
Transparent

Refugee camper John Forté is doing fourteen years as a cocaine trafficker; Goodie Mobster Cee-Lo is as upright as any hip-hopper this side of Kirk Franklin. Forté is a Trinidadian by way of Brooklyn; Cee-Lo is an ATLien as American as pecan pie. Forté's prep school scholarship lent him a jet-set vibe; Cee-Lo's just so down-home. But they have this in common: Both want to go somewhere new on their new albums, and both sing to get there.

With his high, gritty, stutter-shot drawl and tolerant Dirty South preachifying, Cee-Lo is a far more distinguished artist than Forté. So it's not surprising that there's more to Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections than to most solo spinoffs. The varied music finds its center in a guitar funk heavier than any member of the Dungeon Family has bumped out before, "Closet Freak" belongs in the same sentence as "B.O.B.," and the gospel knowledge Cee-Lo brings to his vocals tones up the usual rap singsong. But while his been-there-done-that moralism remains an effective rhetorical posture, these particular admonitions, homilies and cautionary tales don't quite add up to "an entire ocean of emotion that's enlightening to swim in." Street-cured yet righteous? We knew that.

I, John is just the opposite. Forté's near-chanted vocals epitomize rap singsong--think Wyclef, or Speech's totally forgotten, not half-bad 1999 Hooplah. The beautiful voices are all female, and though the tunes make themselves felt pretty fast, they seem thin. Yet the closer you listen the more durable they turn out to be. Recorded in the month before his 2001 trial, I, John seems to be one of those rare albums that make the most of personal crisis--think Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, or Paul McCartney's Run Devil Run. Forté knew he was leaving a testament, and the result should convince any fair-minded listener that whatever his business endeavors, this was a man of spiritual resources and musical gifts. Songs of bitterness about his dead father and his false friends, songs of acceptance about his existential confusion and his dreadful fate. Parting songs, reconciliation songs, songs of unbearable nostalgia. "I don't want to be famous. I want to be free and in love," he says. A good thing to figure out under any circumstances.

Rolling Stone, Apr. 25, 2002