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Holy Hell! Soul Food Turns 20

Holy Hell! Soul Food Turns 20

Maybe it’s not so strange that CeeLo found favor among the 50 and older crowd after all.

Revisiting Goodie Mob’s seminal debut a full 20 years after its release, one thought comes to mind: CeeLo said what now? Though Soul Food and its 1998 follow-up, Still Standing, were both certified Gold, there’s no doubt that Goodie Mob is best known for its front-man, rapper/singer Thomas Callaway a.k.a. CeeLo Green, who reached international stardom in 2006 with Gnarls Barkley’s super-hit “Crazy” and later went on to star in The Voice. Your average waspy soccer mom knows CeeLo, she might even own a record or two.

Which is why it’s funny to think that back in 1995, he was spitting a cappella, “Yeah, it’s true, Uncle Sam wants you to be a devil too/ See he’s jealous because his skin is a curse” on “Fighting.” It’s funny, but not shocking from a longtime rap fan’s perspective. On the contrary, what’s most striking about this album today is just how conservative Goodie Mob’s music and its messages were, if not for the ‘90s in general, then definitely in comparison to today’s chart-topping “Dirty South” rappers.

One need look no further than the album’s second song to find the kind of conservatism I’m talking about. On “Thought Process,” CeeLo spits, “You could smoke a pound of sess/ And it still won’t relieve your stress,” as if in response to Khujo’s earlier lines, “That’s why I be smoking that dank sometimes/ It keeps me from snapping, keeps me calm.” On the same track, Big Gipp describes quietly complying with a police officer while detained during a traffic stop, and Outkast’s André 3000 expresses a former pro-lifer’s regret, proclaiming, “Didn’t think I’d be the one to give in to abortion.” “Hey Ya,” indeed.

Speaking of the Dungeon Family duo, hindsight provides an interesting take on Soul Food’s production, in that riffs Organized Noize employed on this album would be flipped again for Outkast beats. For example, “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2)” off Aquemini, contains essentially the same piano part as “Guess Who,” Soul Food’s song for the moms, but with much more going on. Whereas Organized Noize’s later records would be known for their Wall of Sound-style funk phantasmagoria, the simple loop repeated on “Guess Who” and the similarly toned down soul grooves featured throughout this album are conservative by comparison, perhaps more reflective of Goodie Mob’s family-value vibes than the left-field Armageddon rap on “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2).” That said, Soul Food isn’t without its share of doomsday preaching.

The album’s biggest hit, “Cell Therapy,” which actually reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles Chart, is essentially a reinterpretation of William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse, complete with all of the New World Order police state prophecies that have since been co-opted by right-wingers like Glenn Beck. Here, in one of Goodie Mob’s most often quoted verses, CeeLo famously writes, “Every now and then/ I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or to keep our ass in.” What people don’t often mention is how CeeLo doesn’t sound all that peeved about the gate going up in the second line of his verse. One might go as far as to suggest he welcomes the new security measures even while beginning to grow suspicious regarding the property owner’s true intentions. Regardless of his meaning, the pursuit of a safely insulated community is certainly a far cry from that of the jet-setters heard on Hot 97 today.

And then of course, there are the religious references. The album is called Soul Food, so these are to be expected, but well, shit gets rather heavy. On the last verse of the album’s final cut, “The Day After,” CeeLo explains, “It’s all about preparing yourself for the return/ And a trip to your soul is the only way you’ll learn/ But if you choose not to go that ain’t my concern/ I guess in hell you’ll just have to burn/ The devil tells lies and tries to trick your soul to receive it/ They tell you that my Lord ain’t coming back and you believe it/ Regardless if you listen to me/ In the end we’ll see.” In other words, the album’s closing statement basically equates to: “Repent, ye sinners, or perish in flame on Judgment Day when The Christ shall return!”

Maybe it’s not so craz—ahem—strange that CeeLo found favor among the 50 and older crowd after all.

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