Available On: Soul Food (1995)
First of all
I stand a little more than five feet tall
But we can still brawl nigga, I ain't scared at all
So begins one of the most epic "fuck me? Fuck YOU" slow builds in rap history, Cee-Lo's "Goodie Bag" verse, a furious cascade of words that should, even post-Barkley, remind the world what a great rapper Cee-Lo Green was before he decided to make amazing soul albums instead. I mentioned this track yesterday sort of as a joke, but I was being honest about that verse: like many of the great Andre 3000 extended enders (i.e. "Royal Flush," "What A Job"), Cee-Lo uses this track as an opportunity to go WAY beyond the proprieties of the other Goodie Mob verses, and I think this was by design.
Big Gipp, T-Mo and Khujo deserve major points as well, but this is obviously meant to be Cee-Lo's joint and the band acts accordingly. Cee-Lo luckily wasn't the star he was today, so it wasn't unreasonable that he would get a standout track without being thought of as the general focal point of the group. In fact, he barely figures in what some would argue is Goodie's signature song "Dirty South" (he sort of just hangs around in the background of the video, too). Like Outkast, Goodie Mob had the talent to rest a particular track on one emcee, or do a group track, and expect great things either way.
What makes this verse so great? I'll try to explain, even as I don't think I have a developed enough vocabulary (does that even exist?) to describe what I like most about the tricky rhyme scales and syllable-specific intonations and uniquely southern vowel stretches (my linguistic skills are, alas, not so cunning). Basically, what I like about it is that it sounds like Cee-Lo had a verse prepared, did it straight on the microphone, and then just kept going into the chorus after the words on the page were finished, eventually working himself into some kind of mad freestyle that culminates in a shared breath of relief from both rapper and listener (as well as everyone else in the studio at the time): "Oooooh, shit!"
This is remarkable for two reasons. These days, most popular rap songs have their individual lines dubbed, one at a time, so as to create the impression of an invincible rapper who need not breathe off-mic, and rappers can sound laconic as hell without having to worry about keeping that flow for the rest of the tune (in a way, hypemen perform a similar sort of function live). What's missing from that technique is the sound and character of breathing and pause, one of the most important tools in a rapper's arsenal since at least the days of Rakim. There's NO WAY that could be the case, though, with Cee-Lo's verse here. Particularly toward the end ("I'm comin' through, I'm comin through/Oooh I can't even stop"--3:25), you can hear him veritably gasping for air, getting more and more charged with a mad inspiration that prevents him from cutting himself off, but at that same time it takes a lot out of Cee-Lo, who doesn't have the virtue of laying one intonation after another digitally, leaving the cutting and pasting to the producer. Just look at the way he sort of gasps "We're from Atlanta (breathe) G (breathe) A (breathe)/That is where we stay": everything about the end of his performance here seems unplanned.
This brings me to the other reason the verse so intrigues me, which is that it seems to be a rare instance of a written verse subtly transforming into a freestyle, albeit a freestyle that still goes in on the same themes that Cee-Lo had been writing about throughout Soul Food. I think this poses a challenge for a rap critic, because there seem necessary differences in criteria between evaluating someone's freestyle (did he/she manage to get off some good lines? Was he/she topical, not repeating the same whack shit?) vs. written words (is the wordplay strong and original enough? Does the verse have an overall arc, or sound more like a grab bag of random thoughts?). Cee-Lo straddles that line, and in fact this track made me begin to question whether I was going about the process of claiming what was and wasn't a dope twelve bars all wrong. Part of the power comes from the delivery, but part of it also comes from cheering Cee-Lo on as he continues to top himself, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen bars in.
Cee-Lo's solo career now is strong enough that I don't mind him not rapping on his new album, but I do hope Goodie Mob gets back together soon, as their music has held up way better than almost anything else from the 90s (they have that in common with Outkast, too). Frankly, I haven't even gotten into why I like some of the other devastatingly cool lines ("I still swing low with the lumberjack/track" is a favorite), and maybe with time I can concentrate more on the words themselves. But with some people, delivery is king, and Cee-Lo's verse definitely requires at least two readings, even to scratch the surface of this mightiest of verses.
I would also suggest checking out "Git Up, Git Out" From Southernplayalisticadillacmusik and "Big Ole Words" from Cee-Lo Green Is...The Soul Machine for two other great Cee-Lo verses. Two among many. No rapper has ever stood as proudly "a little more than five feet tall" and still sounded so giant. Well, maybe Prodigy, he's like 5'6. Let's hear it for the short folk.