It's amazing that Goodie Mob's fifth album, Age Against the Machine, exists at all. As part of Atlanta's Dungeon Family, the quartet — comprised of Cee Lo Green, Big Gipp, Khujo and T-Mo — debuted as the more serious, more backwoods cousins of Outkast with 1995's Soul Food — an album that was heady, streetwise, country, ghetto, personal, political and familiar in equal measures. Well before protesting Monsanto, the heroification of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and other counterculture stances became social media chic, the foursome were speaking like guys who had beheld a pale horse while poring over declassified documents. Their first single, "Cell Therapy," depicted the group as conspiracy paranoids railing against government surveillance, black ops, RIFDs, GMOs, the IRS, the drug epidemic and child prostitution with good-natured heaviness. "Listen to me now, believe me later on in the future," rapped Kuhjo with a Southern snarl. "Look here, where they say it, in the Constitution."
They were nothing if not prescient. But they were also off-kilter and anti-commercial and, after releasing two incredible albums — their 1998 follow-up, Still Standing, was a bluesy and crunked-up meditation on relationships, the rap industry and spirituality — their last album as a full group, 1999's World Party, found Goodie Mob navigating the success of its Dungeon Family crew (namely OutKast, who were on the precipice of true mainstream acclaim) and the entire Atlanta music scene with mixed results. TLC had broken through with their blockbusting CrazySexyCool, which opened the entirety of urban Atlanta for exploration by the music industry. Where OutKast was able to maintain their outsider identity while expanding their musical palette, Goodie, even having introduced the term "Dirty South" into the pop-culture lexicon, sounded lost and uninspired and reaching for the dancefloor.
To make matters worse, the group's standout member and one of hip-hop's most secretly powerful rappers, Cee Lo Green, left the group, and their next album, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show, took a swipe at him in title and artwork. Cee Lo would, of course, go on the reinvent himself as a Danger Mouse collaborator and heartbroken Lothario who judges America's Next Top Idol Talent Search Based on a European Show and hangs out in hotel rooms. But the reunited Goodie Mob is benefitting from Cee Lo's raised profile. The album is available on Groupon, which is probably not something they would have been able to pull off during their Lumberjacks days; nor would they have been able to debut a new song on The Voice without riding his coattails.
Predictably, Age Against the Machine often sounds like Cee Lo Green featuring the Goodie Mob. Songs like "Power," "Vallelujah," "Ghost of Gloria Goodchild" and "Amy" are showcases for the rotund singer's vocal exercises that sometimes feature supporting appearances by the rest of the group. But it works, nonetheless, because even at his most pop, like on his smash hit "F--- You," Cee Lo remains thoughtful, insightful and subversive. "Power" and "Amy" are head-on confrontations of race relations — the former provocative; the latter a playful and tender recollection of sex with "my very first white girl." "Ghost of Gloria Goodchild" is a feminist and identity anthem; "Vallelujah" is a bombastic spiritual affirmation that tackles class disparity where Cee Lo raps "You can sell your soul on the black market / And ironically everyone that's black is a target / The real Hunger Game / The real hunger pains / But I still made it to the top / But many have tried and died only to find there's a valley on the other side." "Nexperience" is a Cee Lo solo that finds him literally screaming that, despite all of his fame and wealth, "I'm still a n-----." That he's willing to put his crossover acceptance on the line for his views is, like, wow. Unlike Kanye West, who made similar statements on this year's Yeezus, Cee Lo has been seen as serviceable and approachable, not a spook sitting by the door.
The rest of the group are no slouches, putting their growling and grizzled voices to credible and avuncular stances on gangs, black on black violence and streetfare. Their rhymes are all battle scars and hard-earned wisdom over music that ranges from strongly lilting minimalism ("Kolors") to cinematic grandiosity ("I'm Set," "Pinstripes"). It's hard to figure out where much of the album belongs sonically — it's not quite for the clubs, much of it is too amped-up to be driving music — and that may be the point. Part cosmic slop and part dubstep, "Special Education" features bleeps and synthetic fuzz in creating rhythm and thump as the group measures their greatness by their singularity: "Once conceived, boy, they broke the mold / All this glory-seeking is getting totally outta control / No one's original: Attack of the Clones / Invasion of the swagger snatchers."
That Goodie Mob doesn't aspire to be like anyone else is the gift and the curse of Age Against the Machine. At times songs come off as being different for difference's sake — it's an art experiment that can lean heavier on the experimentation than the art side of the equation. But it's pretty much the album one would expect from a group that's easily balanced the cerebral and commonsense since their teen years. On the closer, "Father Time," Khujo declares they "set the standard for grimy intellectual n----s" and adds: "If anything, boy, we put yo' ass up on game / Gave you food for your soul, then nourished your brain."
There's a great deal of resting on their history throughout the album, but it's really unnecessary. This is not a desperate cash-in or vanity project by a legacy act. After having splintered and recombined over a decade, Goodie Mob still has interesting things to say and engaging ways of saying them. But, perhaps more importantly, they seem to have much more to explore — at no point does Age Against the Machine feel like it's running low on ideas. They're no longer wide-eyed; they're wiser without being wizened. Hopefully, it won't be another 14 years before we hear what else they've been thinking about.