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After group's breakup, Cee-Lo more focused


He stood out. Always did. On those woefully underrated Goodie Mob albums, Cee-Lo was consistently the highlight: His butter-and-grits delivery and street-corner-preacher cadence flowed over spare but affecting beats. I could depend on him to flip it -- spitting rhymes one minute and belting lines the next. Be it crunk funk or blues-suffused hip-hop, Cee-Lo always ripped it with soul to spare, bolstering the talents of his partners: Big Gipp, T-Mo and Khujo.

You remember those classic Goodie Mob joints: "Cell Therapy" (Who's that peekin' in my window / POW! Nobody now) and "Fly Away" (If you don't like what I say / fly away / fly away). Those and 13 others are on the new retrospective, Goodie Mob: Dirty South Classics. But after just three gold albums, the group is moving on minus Cee-Lo. The brotha has been workin' it out solo for two years now.

Calling from his native Atlanta, the man born Trevor Burton says, "I'm definitely not with Goodie Mob anymore. You know, sometimes a good thing just don't last forever. I'm doing my thing, they're doing theirs."

He's on a national tour to promote his new album Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine, which lands in stores Tuesday. It's the follow-up to his solo debut, 2002's Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections. Although the CD was a critical hit and the single, "Gettin' Grown," garnered a Grammy nomination, Perfect Imperfections generated just modest sales, a little over 200,000.

Part of the reason for the record's limited commercial appeal was its eclecticism. No song fit neatly into any peg. Grimy rock, sweaty gospel, funky hip-hop and heavy Southern soul emblazoned the set. At times, those elements were thrown together on one cut.

Slipping into his preacher mode, Cee-Lo says, "My last CD, you see, came from a very personal place. It was a very expressive, progressive album. It was full of endeavor, especially coming from me. It was part of my inner vision. I was trying to give an overview of what my range is: gospel, soul. I like rock; I like funk, everything, man."

Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine is a lot more "focused, more polished," says the artist, 29. "It was all about freedom on the last record. I was going through the breakup of my group, becoming a new father."

The album is a smoother synthesis of Cee-Lo's tastes. The productions -- courtesy of the Neptunes, DJ Premier, Organized Noize and others -- are cleaner, leaner and more accessible without compromising the artist's sound. You get party jams and socially conscious numbers. Live horns blast and sway over undulating rhythms. Looping bass lines thicken catchy funk tracks. The album's brightest spot (and perhaps one of the best singles to come out at the tail end of last year) is "I'll Be Around," the punchy Timbaland-produced cut that has been heating up clubs and airwaves for months.

"Me and Timbaland happened to be in the studio at the same time," Cee-Lo says. "It was quite simple. We laughed and talked, and I told him what I wanted. And he had that banger in the studio the next morning."

Preceded by a white-hot radio hit, The Soul Machine is off to a promising start.

"I continue with my tradition, which is quality," Cee-Lo says. "[The album] is a call out to my peers to be innovative, to experiment. But for me, the common thread has got to be soul. I can name all my albums Soul Machine I, II, III, IV, 'cause that soul is raw, man. It's not neo-soul. It's black soul. But what I'll do next, I really can't say. I'm like a Gypsy that way. I'll know what I want to do when I get there."

And you can bet your last money that it's gonna be real.

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