After a groundswell of hype, Gnarls Barkley has finally arrived. For those who haven't heard yet, Gnarls Barkley is a collaboration between Atlanta rapper and singer Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob fame, and everyone's favorite producer Danger Mouse. After performing in the desert a couple weeks ago at the Coachella Music festival, the duo's first album, St. Elsewhere, hits U.S. stores today after being released in the U.K. on April 24 where the song Crazy jumped to Number 1 on singles chart there.
Seems like there are a number of reasons for the hype (besides the cool name invoking a twisted version of an undersized NBA rebounding champion turned annoying TNT commentator). First of all, since remixing Jay-Z's Black Album with the Beatles' White Album to form the Grey Album ( a pretty awesome feat btw...), anything that Danger Mouse is involved in has generated a tremendous amount of interest (like the Gorillaz album Demon Days and the Danger Doom project with rapper MF Doom). Also as anyone who hasn't been sleepwalking through the past five years must have noticed by now, hip-hop's been largely stuck in an uncreative rut, so unconventional projects by established hip-hop artists (which both members of Gnarls Barkley are) are greeted with somewhat irrational exuberance. The fact that St. Elsewhere contains no rapping only makes it that much more intriguing.
So, does St. Elsewhere live up to the hype? Will it save hip-hop or whatever genre Gnarls Barkley belongs to?
Well, it won't save hip-hop since this isn't a hip-hop album although there's a bit of crossover with some elements of the genre. As far as the hype, St. Elsewhere's not a good bet to change the world, but it's an interesting effort nonetheless. Cee-Lo follows in the footsteps of fellow ATLien Andre 3000 and takes a break from rapping to fully showcase his singing, something he's done quite a few times in the past already, and his powerful voice is definitely up to the challenge.
On the whole, St. Elsewhere sounds kind of like an extended jam session in the remix era - two very talented musicians getting together exploring uncharted musical territory. Lyrically, almost all the songs are about madness, suicide and other dark subjects. It's hard to tell whether the Gnarls Barkley crew were really at this place in their lives, or whether they just thought it would be cool to sing soul music about tripped-out stuff over heavy beats.
At their best, Gnarls Barkley creates something genuinely new, like on the track Just a Thought, a gospel-style confessional about suicidal thoughts with instrumentals that work with the subject matter to create a genuine mood of uneasiness.
At its worst St. Elsewhere could be described as somewhat gimmicky. For an album that is experimental by design, many of the tracks sound pretty similar and I have doubts as to whether I'll break out the Gnarls Barkley CD nostalgically a year from now. The title track St. Elsewhere didn't exactly blow my mind. And as if to reinforce the genre-bending nature of Gnarls Barkley, they throw in a cover of the Violent Femmes song Gone Daddy Gone that sounds a lot like the original (without being nearly as original).
But, I have a feeling after the dust settles, and almost everyone has heard of and for the most part forgotten St. Elsewhere, there is a lot that is redeeming about this album and I'll be excited when a cool track like Crazy comes on at a party or on my iPod and I'll be like, "Damn, who is that again? Oh right, it's Gnarls Barkley."