Jason King

"Artist of the Year: Gnarls Barkley" (longform essay on 'album of the year' St. Elsewhere)

Idolator (Gawker) | 2007

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I was commissioned by Gawker's now defunct website Idolator to write the essay on St. Elsewhere, the album they chose as album of the year as part of their year end coverage.

At this time, Gawker has not published its back catalogue anywhere so none of the great writing from Idolator exists publicly. Blah. Hope that changes.

I'm reprinting the article here:

Jackin' Pop Critics' Poll essay
published January 2007
By Jason King
copyright 2007

Gnarls Barkley (No. 1 artist; No. 1 track; No. 7 album)

Recently a national newspaper asked me to comment on the absence of hip-hop in the main categories of this year's Grammy nominations. Even though it picked up Album and Record of the year nods, the editorial staff decided that Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere didn't count as hip-hop. Admittedly, Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo sings more than raps and Danger Mouse's eclectic production references '60s soul and '80s college rock as much as hip-hop. But I've yet to hear a convincing argument why St. Elsewhere couldn't be considered a broadening out, rather a foreclosure, of hip-hop. Iconoclasts Neneh Cherry, Me'Shell Ndege'ocello, Mos Def, Q-Tip, and Andre 3000 have already fucked with the genre enough times to give it a sorely needed identity crisis. But no one this year has poked more holes in hip-hop--nor better exposed its street-cred demands as irrelevant--than Gnarls Barkley.

A hallucinogenic pastiche of brittle vintage synths, Morse-code drum programming, and whimsically diced-up samples, St. Elsewhere is the creepiest album in black music since Sly's Fresh. Spastic opener "Go Go Gadget Gospel" sounds like somebody cast the Golden Gate Quartet and Scottie B in a campy '60s Broadway musical. "Smiley Faces" features a baritone Greek chorus over a Holland-Dozier-Holland beat. On paper, the spaghetti-western-meets-southern-soul mash-up that is "Crazy" shouldn't have worked. The fact that everyone from Nelly Furtado to Ray LaMontagne has recorded cover versions is a testament to its sublime songcraft and esoteric universalism. That the chorus evolves from "maybe I'm crazy" to "maybe we're crazy" is a reminder that psychosis may be the one thing that continues to bind U.S. together in an increasingly privatized, war-obsessed technoculture.

"Crazy" was a biz triumph as well as a purely musical one. Spun across a variety of radio formats including AC, Top 40, Alternative, Hot AC, Urban, and Dance, it became the first single to rack up platinum downloads without a physical CD at retail. It also spent an unheard-of nine weeks at No. 1 on the otherwise novelty-happy U.K. singles chart (and 11 weeks on the U.K. download chart) before being pulled by its label to guard against overexposure. St. Elsewhere is the ultimate "Long Tail" album, a musical analogue to our borderless, niche-obsessed times. Danger Mouse has crafted a career emulsifying funk, punk, pop, gospel, ambient, and whatever else he can cram in until the constituent parts form a seamless whole new thing. And after two puzzling Arista solo albums, Cee-Lo demonstrates a lyrical gift for psychoanalytic candor ("I've tried everything but suicide . . . but it's crossed my mind"), and his chitlinized tenor brings heart to the cuckoo proceedings.

Downtown Records, the indie label that stirred up U.K. fever for "Crazy" when U.S. distributors initially passed on it, also deserves kudos. Founder Josh Deutsch started his career doing A&R for Lenny Kravitz, whose adventures in racial and musical border meltdown helped set the template that Gnarls Barkley are expanding. Today, in an online era of veiled usernames and Second Life avatars, Deutsch has made the most of the fact that "crossover" and "passing"--strategies once used mostly by minorities to escape being marginalized--could become everyone's means to a hip end.

No surprise, then, that Danger Mouse claimed nebbish auteur Woody Allen as his inspiration in the New York Times. The Long Tail model seems to reap reward on racial ironists with pop ambition and urban cachet--not only Danger Mouse, but also will.i.am, Pharrell, Damon Albarn, Gwen Stefani, Lupe Fiasco . . . you get the picture. Like his Jewish film hero, Danger Mouse fashions himself as a detail-obsessed, press-shy enigma, though "Boogie Man" and "Necromancer" are more paranoid, claustrophobic, and comically perverse than anything Allen's ever cooked up.

While Woody Allen swiftly graduated from farce into mature romance, Danger Mouse appears to relish his tenure as an Adult Swim cartoon. Maybe it's the juvenile punch line of the group's name, or the slick promo photos where he and Cee-Lo costume themselves after characters from Back to the Future and A Clockwork Orange, but St. Elsewhere has the studied, cerebral affectation of a performance art project. Although the affable Cee-Lo appears to value accessibility, even exposing himself as a concerned family man on an episode of MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen, opaque trickster Danger Mouse buries himself in full-bodied mouse outfits, questing for Warholian immortality. The dynamic duo's musical ambitions may be in sync, but their approaches to celebrity and self-presentation are so divergent that one wonders how long this gravy train will last.

More Kool Keith than Rakim, more Screaming Jay Hawkins than Ray Charles, Gnarls Barkley still seems to matter more than any other group this year. Dealing with topics like feng shui and suicide, Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse explode black masculinity at a time when keepin' it real means busting the bank on $200 Bape shoes and gaudy candy-colored hoodies. St. Elsewhere is the narcotic revelation of that postmodern urban nightmare, the long tail trying to find its own tail.
----Jason King is Artistic Director of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University.