Storytellers: Cee Lo Green debuts tonight on VH1 at 11 p.m. Eastern.
If I can say one thing, there are plenty worse ways to spend your Friday night in or lazy DVR Saturday on the couch then with 50 minutes of intimate anecdotes and rousing performances from Cee Lo Green. The unlikely pop superstar came to Storytellers with his all-female backing band, Scarlet Fever, in tow, and appropriately got his Southwest Atlantan Prince/Robert Palmer on throughout nine near-flawlessly executed songs. (Hopefully, the DVD will capture tracks that didn’t make the final edit, particularly from his pre-Lady Killer/Gnarls Barkley solo work.)
The original Dungeon Family member and constant peer of OutKast and other southern hip-hop/R&B icons is a pretty exceptional selection for Storytellers, since huge portions of his back catalog are likely a mystery to “Crazy” downloaders and “Fuck You” fanatics. As a result, Green’s appearance on the show functioned as much to illustrate the scope of his back story for a mainstream audience as it did provide insight on the songwriting process at different phases of his career.
I was a bit surprised that he came right out the gate with the aforementioned Gnarls Barkley smash “Crazy.” Ditto for my amazement that he sequenced “Fuck You”—which, despite his lead-in recollection of the chorus acting as a thinly veiled middle finger to his label, was disappointingly subbed out for its now-commonplace “Forget You” counterpart—a couple songs back from his final bow. But alas, as Cee Lo comments frequently in off-stage interview segments and to an awkwardly yuppified audience of what I presume were mostly junior publicists, the man can’t help but do what’s in his heart.
Fortunately for those of us hoping he’d turn back the clock, even if those in attendance reacted blankly, that included an early cameo from the rest of his formative group, Goodie Mob. Cee Lo even dusted off his MC skills (which, granted, are pretty modest compared to his talents as a vocalist) for a hyped-up take on Goodie classic “Soul Food.” Even the beleaguered Khujo managed to arrive for the occasion, despite a debilitating car accident in 2002 and recent stint in a Georgia prison.
Scarlet Fever, while possibly the worst-named band in America—saving some of the individual members’ other projects, including keyboardist Theresa Flaminio’s Khronic—were tight from the start, and are all legitimate musicians who’ve clearly lived in this material with Cee Lo on the road. Their contributions were particularly robust for “Fuck,” er, “Forget You,” a song Green himself has obviously grown somewhat tired of, and closer “Satisfied,” which turned out to be the ideal choice to triumphantly send things out.
As an actual storyteller, Green is a bit awkward and shy, which is endearing. And as the stocky, tattooed Renaissance man pointed out himself following “Bright Lights, Bigger City,” there’s only so much to say about certain material. (Although I much appreciated his name-checking Loverboy and Johnny Kemp as examples of kindred spirits to the vibe behind “Bright Lights.”) The most fascinating revelation by far was the full story behind “Don’t Cha,” the Pussycat Dolls single that Green wrote, produced and originally recorded with failed diva hopeful Tori Alamaze, even if his abbreviated rendition of the song left me wanting more.
Far as a grading curve is concerned, I’d be remiss not to factor in the let-down absence of anything from Perfect Imperfections or Soul Machine. I could also quibble about the couple of moments during “Don’t Cha” and “Forget You” when the band and Cee Lo seemed a bit out of sync, or how I’d have preferred all the pre-taped Q & A segments be left for home video and swapped out for more actual music. But all told, so to speak, this was a really fun installment in a series that’s typically pretty fuddy-duddy, and a very cool and deserved feather in the cap for one weird-ass, soul-singing, Billboard-charting misfit.
• Kind of amazing that his bassist, Regina Zernay, used to be in Cowboy Mouth.
• His natural vocal melody and ear for a song’s character on standouts like “Old Fashioned” is pretty remarkable, and makes me wonder if he really gets proper respect as a singer, all eccentricity aside.
• The whole mannequins thing was kind of dumb. I got what he was saying, but that whole concept might not have been rehearsed or thought through enough before actual taping.
• Fine, I give in. I’m kind of eager to give Bruno Mars more of a chance now.
• “James Brown is my father.” Yeah, you and lord knows how many others.
• “Analog. I am. Analog.” And your father.
• I wanted to hug him when he started crying during “She Knows.” And appreciated him removing his glasses and being so vulnerable during it.
• Keytars and ascots. Man, they know how to do it in the south.