The Second Coming of Gnarls Barkley is upon us. From his psychedelic pulpit, Cee-Lo — the bald, tattooed, rusty-piped wailer — preached the gospel of funk to worshipful audiences with 2006's retro-cool St. Elsewhere (1.3 million units moved so far). Now, as Gnarls's sophomore album, The Odd Couple (see our review on p. 80), attempts to convert yet more listeners, are the big-boned Cee-Lo and his partner, reed-thin Danger Mouse, feeling the unholy heat of industry expectations? "No," says an unruffled Cee-Lo. "No pressure."
Even the most devout fan wonders if the blissfully bizarre duo can match the fanatic sensation of "Crazy," the compulsively danceable tune covered by countless fawning musicians. ("Billy Idol's was my favorite," says Cee-Lo. "He was my first image of a true rock star.") But that's not their aim. "I'm an artist, and it's a crime to the canvas to paint the same picture over and over. We're concerned about making whole albums rather than just singles."
Serene words for someone shrouded in hype. But he wasn't always so Zen: The son of southern ministers, Cee-Lo lost his father to a heart attack at age 2; 14 years later, his mother suffered a crippling car accident and died a couple of years after. "Behavior problems" ensued, including depression, petty theft, and muscling for gangs. Military school helped straighten out the future prophet. "Am I still a soldier at heart? Yes. Fighting for the liberation of good music!" says the divorced dad of three, laughing. "My life, including the many wrongs that I've done, makes sense to me now. Music is an act of redemption on my part. It's a practice of faith."
Of course, it's all good now. Today, disciples pack the Gnarls Barkley tent as Cee-Lo leads the frenzied flock wearing costumes from film faves like Grease and Napoleon Dynamite. "Our music is come-as-you-are; it includes everyone," he says. "It's very honest and genuine in that way." Amen.