Gnarls Barkley's Oft-Ignored Dark Side
American society is accustomed to—and quite adept at ignoring—white boys singing of inner pain. Mostly we dismiss their angsty lyrics as hyperbole at best, bad poetry at worst, confident that although a few tortured singers may actually pull the trigger (Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith), most will live happily ever after.
Cee-Lo is a whole other archetype: A tattooed, smiling rapper who, with Gnarls Barkley, belts out sunny soul music that just so happens to be about depression. But in an almost comical send-up of our culture’s steadfast refusal to address mental illness, we gloss over his admissions of pain like he was just another college emo kid with an acoustic guitar. That verse in “Crazy” where he sings of wanting to die like his heroes? It blew right past us. And that entire song about staring at a gun, thinking of suicide? Well, he can’t mean it literally, right? Besides, that Violent Femmes cover is so catchy.
This month Gnarls Barkley returned with an arguably even better second full-length album, and perhaps emboldened by listeners’ indifference to his cries last time around, Cee-Lo has upped the despair. On “Open Book” he begs the Lord to strike him down so he doesn’t have to do it himself. On “Would Be Killer” he threatens to turn his vengeance on others—something that won’t surprise fans who have been following him since Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy.” And with each listen to lead single “Run,” it becomes clearer and clearer that the anonymous threat Cee-Lo warns of is himself. The brilliance of Gnarls Barkely is that the group isn’t all fun and games. Peppy as their brief songs may be, Cee-Lo fills them with some of the starkest confessionals ever to grace pop music, confident that they’ll be ignored.