The mid-1990s could be considered the golden age of southern hip-hop. During that time, Atlanta rap crew Dungeon Family helped the region gain a voice by releasing a number of beloved albums built on funky, southern-friend instrumentals and socially conscious lyrics. While OutKast received universal acclaim for their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, it was DF group Goodie Mob that really pushed the envelope with their first record, Soul Food. The group, consisting of MCs Big Gipp, Cee Lo Green, Khujo and T-Mo, painted a vivid picture of what it meant to be young and black in the south, touching on topics of racism, poverty and family. The album’s sound, crafted by production team Organized Noise, was organic and soulful, built on a mix of live instrumentation, 808 drums and crackling samples. Today, many consider the album a classic and one of the most spiritual hip-hop albums ever made.
A lot has changed since then. Probably the biggest change has been the sudden stardom of group leader Cee Lo, who has become a pop darling for his catchy breakup songs and his role as a judge on the reality television singing competition The Voice. While Green’s celebrity has grown and his personality—like his outfits—has become more showy and loud, his bandmates have fallen out of the limelight, dwelling in semi-obscurity on Koch Records. Despite being in different places, the group has decided to reunite for their first proper album in over a decade. And just like Soul Food, Age Against The Machine tries to succeed in being different and innovative. At times, the results are disastrous, but the album always remains interesting.
Even though Age Against the Machine’s sound is vastly different than any of the group’s previous work, it still has the makeup of a Goodie album. It begins with an introduction by DF veteran and spoken word artist Big Rube, for example. And, give credit to Cee Lo: Despite being the indisputable front man of the group now, he never tries to steal the show. Almost every song features every member of the Mob, just like past releases. But the meditative sound of Soul Food and even the club sensibilities of 1999’s World Party are nowhere to be found here. Instead, the group decided to go with a much bigger and more experimental sound, incorporating elements of dance and electronic, rock, trap and even classical. Often, it works; the booming horns and heavy drums on tracks like “I’m Set” and “Pinstripes,” which also features an opera vocal sample, are enthralling. And the futuristic thump of “Special Education” successfully blends the group’s southern influence with elements of today’s EDM scene. Elsewhere, however, the group bites off more than it can chew. Quirky, fast-paced tracks like “Ghost Of Gloria Goodchild” and “Come As You Are,” featuring an Alice in Chains-like shriek of a chorus, come off forced, especially for Khujo and T-Mo, whose deeper voices sometimes get lost in the mix.
The album’s subject matter varies just as much as its production. Goodie Mob still has no problem ruffling up feathers and taking on social issues rarely spoken about in hip-hop. On “Power,” for example, Cee-Lo describes how being famous has allowed him, a black male, to experience the benefits of “white power,” a saying he repeatedly shrieks throughout the track. And on “Amy,” against an ultra-poppy backdrop, each member reminisces on their “very first white girl.” The anger used on Goodie’s early work to describe issues like racism in the south and the penitentiary system has been replaced by tongue-in-cheek songwriting, an almost taunt toward corporate America. You can’t help but picture Cee Lo, today’s lovable teddy bear of the mainstream, sporting a devilish smile while writing some of the lyrics here. But as thought provoking and controversial as they are, Age’s words can also be vague. On “Kolors,” for example, the group tries to dissect how the different colors of the spectrum control people’s lives, but never really arrive at a clear-cut point.
Nonetheless, Age Against The Machine can still be considered a success for its willingness to be different, which has been the mob’s mantra for its entire career. Rather than being safe and returning to its roots, the mob decided to look to the future and craft an album they believed would bring something new and refreshing to the table. And in that sense, there’s a lot to like here. But on the album’s final track, “Father Time,” which features the album’s most straightforward beat, a soulful backdrop snatched straight from the ’90s, Cee-Lo and the gang sound so at home that you can’t help but get a little nostalgic—the innovator’s dilemma. -Reed Jackson