Q&A: Cee Lo Green on Freddie Mercury and the Future of Gnarls Barkley

The Atlanta soul singer talks life since landing mega-hit 'Fuck You'

cee lo green 2010
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Cee Lo Green
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Cee Lo Green went into his third solo album with a specific goal. "I think people were convinced that I was Gnarls Barkley 24/7, and that ain't true," says the singer, 35. "With this album I wanted to say, 'Let me assure you that you don't know me completely.'" The Lady Killer, which came out in early November, highlights his romantic side with lush production that recalls Fifties doo-wop, Seventies disco and Eighties pop. "I wanted a sound that requires sheet music," says Green, who started his career at 17 in Atlanta hip-hop crew Goodie Mob. "I told my label, 'I want something that sounds like big, black James Bond.'" To that end, Green dialed up a handful of producers, including Amy Winehouse collaborator Salaam Remi, U.K. beatmaker Paul Epworth and Bruno Mars' Smeezingtons, who helped craft the hypercatchy viral smash "Fuck You." The hardest part, he adds, was choosing which jams would make the cut. "In three years, I've recorded almost 70 songs, man," he says. "It was quite a task to narrow that down to just 14."

Why do you think "Fuck You" took off so quickly?
It's cute as a button! [Laughs] It's very disarming, and it actually sounds nothing like that title – it's got a very tongue-in-cheek quality. It's "Fuck You" – but with a smile on your face.

Why did you choose The Lady Killer as the name of the album?
I adore women. I don't think I've really had an opportunity to shed any light on that side of myself. I thought that this was as good a time as any.

What's your MO when you spot a lady you want to get with?
There's no one way to go about it. You have to assess the occasion and appropriate the conversation that best suits it. Modern R&B lyrics cut right to the chase, but I prefer the scenic route – know what I mean? I've always had a way with words. I prefer a woman who appreciates poetry and encourages eloquence, because it's fun. Or maybe I just like to hear myself talk [laughs].

The bass line on the new song "Bright Lights Bigger City" sounds like "Billie Jean."
Yeah, it does, and I think it's very "Night Fever," too. That song is about how every Saturday of your life will always be different, and it will always feel the same. I wanted a song that can be played every Saturday night, forever.

What singers really move you?
Freddie Mercury. Queen's music sounds like theater, and that's something that Freddie brought to rock. "Killer Queen" and "Somebody to Love," all those big-ass arrangements. He didn't think small, and even when he did, it was for minimalist masterpieces like "We Will Rock You" or "Another One Bites the Dust." I just think he's awesome, and he's a gorgeous vocalist.

Are your kids musical?
My daughter's a singer, and my son is able to imitate almost anything – any riff, any voice. That's how I started. I'd sing along with Al Green, and after a while, my voice became flush with his, and you couldn't tell the difference.

You sing the hook on Slim Thug's new cut "Marijuana." Are you a pot smoker?
I don't smoke at all! Around the time of Goodie Mob's first album, I had a weed-induced anxiety attack, and I never got comfortable with it again. The funny thing is, when that song came out, I was like, "I've got a song with Slim Thug?" I have no recollection of singing that part, and I don't even understand what I'm saying.

You have a ton of tattoos. Any that you love or hate?
I kind of resent them all. I was commemorating things that were important to me, like my mama and Goodie Mob. It never dawned on me how permanent it would be. Now, I look at 'em like, "Well, that could be better."

What's up with Gnarls?
Nothing at the moment. We'll get started again in the near future. I talked to Danger Mouse the other day, and he called when "Fuck You" came out, and he loved it.

What did you spend your "Crazy" money on?
People were like, "Yeah, go get that Rolls-Royce!" But in all honesty, it's unnecessary. I bought a ranch about an hour outside of Atlanta. It's very peaceful, quiet and serene. I used to have a couple of horses – but now I'm the only animal out there.

This story is from the December 9th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1119: December 9, 2010