It’s six months too early to crown a winner for Success Story of 2011, but bet on Cee-Lo Green to take the title. The one-time Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley frontman’s been around for two decades, but only this decade has he become the sort of multi-platform, omnipresent icon that the term “pop star” was invented for.
How’d he do it? First, there’s his voice: a dynamic tenor unlike anyone else’s, able to croon and rap with equal ease. Then there’s years of cred: Goodie Mob serving as backstory and legend, a few critically praised solo albums to start the hype simmering, and a grand breakthrough with Gnarls Barkley and “Crazy.” Combined, they made Cee-Lo formidable, if not exactly inescapable. After this came a year of savvy moves:
- 2010-11: Releases “Fuck You” to blogs’ profane glee and the vindication of anyone who’s ever felt poor or stomped on or just needing to say FU to someone. The single rode two trends at once: first, the kinetic-typography trend that doubled as a built-in lyrics video, pre-empting the YouTube kids; next, a funny, bratty event video to keep people interested. From anyone else, “Fuck You” would be a one-hit novelty, but Cee-Lo’s back catalogue was large enough to get the track both instant attention and gravitas. And the attached album, The Lady Killer, contains enough retro gems like the standout “Bright Lights, Bigger City” to prove Green’s got a musical vocabulary beyond the four-letter.
Later on, Cee-Lo drops a clean version allowing the more family-friendly charts to experience all of the Motown fun with none of the eff. “F(uck/orget) You”‘s been on the Billboard charts for more than half a year, peaking at No. 2. But how do the twain coexist? Mostly thanks to ‘Lo discreetly dropping out of the chorus in concerts, letting the audience supply whichever verb they like best. (Hint: It’s not “forget.”)
- Late 2010: Lets Glee take a crack at “Forget You” with Gwyneth Paltrow in tow. Say whatever you want about Gleemixes of pop, but the appearance helped make “Forget You” a cultural institution. In the ’10s, you know you’ve made it when you’ve been canonized by a bunch of autotuned showbiz kids.
- February 2011: Takes “Forget You” to the Grammys and steals the show through gaudy Muppetry and another Paltrow cameo–an impressive feat, considering that Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and the Black Eyed Peas were all in attendance and full regalia.
- April 2011: Makes his understated debut as a coach on NBC’s The Voice. Amid Xtina’s syrupy, Adam Levine’s wise-guy wisecracking and Blake Shelton’s bro-ing out, Cee-Lo stands out for just how little he has to do. He’s Cee-Lo Green, damn it, and if you don’t respect him for his very presence, then he’s like….
- June 2011: Drops the trailer for Fuse talk show “Talking to Strangers,” which you can watch below:
Judging by the (thankfully substantial) trailer, this looks to be quite the event, with every star appearance studded with exclamation points. Kelly Rowland, perhaps on the cusp of a pretty good year herself! Keri Hilson showing about 10 times more personality than usual! An always-welcome Estelle! Offbeat choices like Grace Potter and the Nocturnal and TV on the Radio! We’re guessing someone out there really wanted to see Train?
And more than that, which other star could get away with this degree of puppet shenanigans and still come off as impossibly cool? No one, that’s who. In Cee-Lo’s wake, the rest of the world might as well be strangers.