CeeLo Green has always done his best work when balanced out by more straight-faced accomplices, from the molasses-voiced, moon-faced hype man for Southern-rap stalwarts Goodie Mob, to playing against the scrupulous studio perfectionism of Danger Mouse in Gnarls Barkley. Left to his own devices, though, Green produces a garish form of sunshine pop, padded out with lush orchestration and sloppy first-draft lyricism, presenting himself as a jovial, sexless figure of open-hearted fun.
The intro to Heart Blanche establishes the album’s general template, with Green squawking and vamping over a soaring gospel background befitting the late-career ministrations of a geriatric soul diva. It’s a weird, potentially interesting approach, but the nuttiness doesn’t carry off nearly as well as it did on Goodie Mob’s surprisingly effective 2013 reunion album, Age Against the Machine, on which Green’s assured eccentricity spearheaded the group’s effort to strike out in weird new directions rather than replicate old sounds. On his own, Green is less ambitious, and the music here recalls his 2002 Dungeon Family-aided debut more than anything else, only further glossed up, packed with ham-fisted entreaties toward the modern pop landscape.
An R&B singer free from the usual testosterone-fueled aggressiveness, flaunting his sensitive side without ever directly touching the topic of sex, Green often comes across as a flamboyant, androgynous male figure performing female-centric material, complete with throbbing disco beats, buoyant lyrics about self-empowerment, and a total absence of brooding machismo. Considering the conservatism hip-hop and its corollary genres still apply toward sexuality and gender roles, Heart Blanche offers Green a remarkable opportunity to at least slightly nudge away from that traditionalism in a pop context. The album, however, is so relentlessly cartoonish and broad that he only seems ridiculous, pumping out sappy motivational anthems geared at the widest possible audience. Considering the singer’s previous skill at outré ostentation, and his continuing status as the best contemporary approximation of a Roger Moore-era Bond villain, it’s depressing that he plays this madcap material so tediously straight.
This makes for dire songs like “Est. 1980s,” a rote catalogue of names and song titles that fails as a personal origin story, instead devolving into perhaps the most pathetic bid for drunken nostalgia in recent memory. Somehow even worse is “Robin Williams,” maudlin pap that scavenges the bones of recently deceased celebrities in a tasteless bid for relevancy. Later, on “CeeLo Green Sings the Blues,” Green tacitly bemoans his own personal problems, related to accusations of sexual abuse and his tone-deaf response to those allegations on social media, through a bad Billy Preston impersonation.
The new Green that emerges through these songs— sentimental, self-pitying, and myopically cheerful—is a sort of AME church-derived Liberace, offering a glitzy style of gospel-tinged excess pop that presents implicitly progressive social messages in the most uninteresting manner possible. Bloated, brainless, and completely lacking in self-awareness, it’s a groaning monstrosity of an album, one that can’t even put its overwhelming excess to any suitable use.