How To Ride Your Creativity
If there's a trendy marker of success these days, it is the hyphenate--a strung-together mashup of titles made mandatory when no single job description suffices to describe a certain someone's magnificence. CeeLo Green's hyphenate, then, goes something like this: singer-writer-producer-personality-actor-entrepreneur-mentor-freak (the last word being CeeLo's own). It's a terrific string, a truthful combination that slides him neatly into the zeitgeist, somewhere between Lady Gaga's army of little monsters and the "It Gets Better” movement. But it's not the hyphenate CeeLo would give himself. No, when asked for his own sweet description, CeeLo smiles his Cheshire cat grin, pauses, and replies, "I am a licensed, professional lady-killer.” He chuckles. "But you have to understand like this: The way that you can call a ship a ‘she,' a storm a ‘she,' you can call this industry a ‘she.' And if the game is a dame, then my aim is on the game.”
Successfully say all that with a straight face to a reporter and you too could have a career in Hollywood.
He is not joking, though. When off the clock, this is the real CeeLo, or at least the real man that the CeeLo phenomenon has made: He speaks in a mellow bedroom patter filled with rhymes and riddles and carefully crafted sound bites that seem to contain this answer, all answers, or perhaps no answer at all. He is Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, born 37 years ago in Atlanta. His parents were both ordained ministers, and both passed away before he'd passed his teenage years. That preacher lineage lives on in the way CeeLo communicates, and even more in the mission he believes he's carrying out.
The mission is in his music, in his oversize public persona, and in his role as a mentor on NBC's hit singing/chair-rotating reality competition The Voice. He intends for it to be in his future as a Vegas showman. "I want to be a beacon of light in darkness,” he says. "I want to be a poster boy of possibility, you know what I'm saying?” CeeLo is almost always asking if you know what he's saying. He is sitting in L.A.'s famed Pantry Café devouring a turkey-sausage omelet, and his sweet nothings are sometimes difficult to hear over the clatter of short-order cooking, as the Thursday afternoon tourist crowd struggles to identify this rotund gentleman in a T-shirt and sweats as the larger-than-life human disco ball they know and love on TV.
And if they were to all come up to him at once, to ask him for advice, he'd have an answer at the ready. It's a catchphrase he enjoys, one that sums up his career as well as anything: "I want to say that, instead of im-possible, I'M possible,” he says to me, to everyone. "And so are you.”
As a child, CeeLo--Thomas, then--began with dreams of being a DJ. He used to sit with his auntie's boom box on his lap, inspired by the spins of Mr. Mixx from 2 Live Crew and DJ Jazzy Jeff. "There was a lever that went from mono to stereo,” he remembers. "I would work it like a crossfade, and I would get the woofers and gesture like it was a DJ set. I could hear the way the sound would change between the different settings, you know what I'm saying? I could hear what I was doing.”
He continues to draw on this experience, letting it remind him of what he needs today. He has little time for himself now. And yet keeping Brand CeeLo creative isn't all that different from what it took to please an inventive young boy: "I'm into mixtures and hybrid theories, fusions, different styles of music, and trying to make something new and original. The way something goes in is not the way that it comes out. It's filtered, one way or another, by just your own feel. Your own fantasies. The way you want to perceive it.”
You know what he's saying? It's this: He's his own litmus test.
Then the young DJ discovered street graffiti. "There was something independent about it, something dangerous, something rebellious and lawless,” he says. He covers his omelet with pepper, takes a sip of his whipped-cream-slathered hot chocolate. "Above the law: Maybe that's what encouraged me the most.”
CeeLo, a man of many outfits, as Gnarls Barkley
And from there, he developed a style both collaborative and rebellious—a pairing that, in him, felt natural. After three albums in the '90s with the hip-hop group Goodie Mob followed by two solo albums that lacked commercial success and ended his relationship with Arista Records, CeeLo teamed up with Danger Mouse to emerge in 2006 as Gnarls Barkley. Their first single, "Crazy,” launched the pair into the stratosphere and made CeeLo's raw, keening voice into a household sound. From this, he discovered a new challenge: "Either you're working hard trying to make it happen, or you're working three times as hard trying to keep it happening. There's a difference between lifting something up and holding something up. There's two different degrees of strength.”
This new strength was flexed with opportunity, he believed: He needed not just to create music but to be everywhere with it. To help, CeeLo signed with a management agency (Primary Wave Music, home of Soulja Boy and 50 Cent) in 2010, before releasing his third solo album, The Lady Killer. According to Larry Mestel, Primary Wave's CEO and a man so directly invested in CeeLo's success that he, too, is sitting in the Pantry Café with a turkey-sausage omelet, "CeeLo is the most unusual artist we have worked with, because there are virtually no artists as creative as CeeLo.”
Primary Wave's dedication to the synergy of musical brands and marketing opportunities became essential the minute The Lady Killer's first single, the addictively profane "Fuck You,” turned into the ubiquitous viral hit of the year, like a grumpy "Hey Ya!” for a recession-jaded country. CeeLo moved fast: mocking his taboo lyrics on Saturday Night Live; performing in feathers on the Grammys with the Muppets and Gwyneth Paltrow; spinning his piano upside down over the audience at the Billboard Music Awards. Since then, he's played the Super Bowl and a fundraiser for President Obama, to cite obvious highlights. He once played three shows in three different time zones on the same day. Despite appearances, "we don't do it all,” CeeLo says. "We do what counts. If there was an easier way to be branded the way that I am branded now, I'm sure we would have entertained that as an option. But if that's what was necessary to become the brand that I am, then I wouldn't change a thing.”
It's all strategy, a careful cultivation of image through massive exposure, but at its core is a sense of purpose. The feathers and wigs and sunglasses and sequins and giant fluffy white cat (we'll get to her in a minute) are all grounded in something that--true or not--at least gives this man an orientation point, a sense that it isn't all just a big, senseless carnival: "Even if the many shapes, forms, and fashions I come in look like an identity crisis, it can shock you out of being comfortably numb,” he says. "I can force you to be aware. It's for the people, by the people. I wouldn't have anything to say without the cause being bestowed upon me. It feels like a duty.”
It is pouring rain and thundering like crazy over Burbank, on an April afternoon the day before our omelet sit-down. But inside the bland soundstage where The Voice is shot, CeeLo is sitting with Buddha-like stillness, watching his four remaining Voice team members rehearse their songs for the following week's live broadcast. What you see on TV is actually quite real and not just some pithy back-and-forth for the cameras: CeeLo is here to mentor. "If your passion is genuine,” he preaches, "something miraculous can happen.”
CeeLo on The Voice
His mentoring style is emotional, and almost entirely philosophical. Sometimes he sings what he's thinking; most of the time he leaves the musical details up to The Voice's increasingly long-suffering musical director, Paul Mirkovich. Although he's ostensibly taping material for a family-friendly show, much of what CeeLo contributes is exactly the kind of inappropriately frank stream of consciousness you'd expect from a licensed, professional lady-killer: He suggests that one female contestant perform Aerosmith's "Cryin' ” in a leather onesie as "a gift from on low”; he mournfully tells another young woman that he can't have foursomes anymore due to a slipped disc in his back. ("You mean golf, right?” Mirkovich deadpans.) To their credit, the young women appear unfazed, and flattered. After all, as part of the show's core conceit, they chose him.
CeeLo is also extremely funny and extremely cocky, and when he goes on a rant, his bedroom voice disappears completely, as it does during his session with Jamar Rogers, an HIV–positive former crystal meth addict whose redemptive story and spectacular talent made him one of the show's standouts. This week, CeeLo has him singing Bon Jovi's "It's My Life,” a curious fit for the contestant's gritty R&B style. Rogers isn't sold. "I understand it's a difficult task to trust someone you've only known for a short time,” CeeLo tells Rogers. "I'm not always right. But my track record is more winning than not, especially as alternative as I am. I was born a freak. Nothing I can do about it. I'm trying to show how beautiful it is to be yourself. And how possible it is to be successful being yourself.” He explains that the lyrics--"It's my life / It's now or never / And I ain't gonna live forever”--connect perfectly with Rogers's story.
After the first run-through of the song, Rogers admits, "You made me a believer. As usual.”
But lest things at The Voice tip too far into the world of constructive artistic sincerity, there is always that cat to fall back on. The sour-faced Persian's name is Purrfect, and he cradles her a few times per episode. She isn't actually CeeLo's, and she comes with a two-trainer entourage. She may also technically be a he, something CeeLo will neither confirm nor deny. ("A gentleman don't tell.”) Yet Purrfect is a perfect CeeLo prop: silly and yet on point, four more paws to help prop up his brand. He would, however, like to be clear about one thing: "The cat is not a rental. The cat is a professional.”
And if The Voice's showtime setting--CeeLo in a high-backed throne behind dark sunglasses, slowly stroking a white cat while deciding the fate of those under his control--happens to evoke thoughts of, say, a Bond villain? "Well,” he says, pausing for a comparative eternity. "At the very least, I know you ain't the only one that thought that. Maybe the people who do casting have, um, considered that option a time or two themselves. And let's hope so. I'd be good at it.”
Listen to that closely, and you hear a man with yet more ambition. Although most of CeeLo's on-screen work has been as himself, he's got a bit part as a singer in the upcoming Sparkle (aka Whitney Houston's last movie), and lends his voice to a mummy in this September's animated feature Hotel Transylvania. So, would he like to transition into a full-fledged acting career someday? "I would love to,” he says. "I would love to. I would love to, simple as that. I would love to.”
It is the most straightforward answer he gives all day.
CeeLo now collects a stable paycheck (The New York Times cited it at $20 million last year), which any artist, if you poke them hard enough, will confess is more or less the dream. And while his outlandish public performances have branded him as someone who can make people "believe in magic again,” he says, those sorts of gimmicks are very expensive to take on the road.
So CeeLo came up with a creative way to brace himself against those limitations and wriggle into his most ambitious gig yet: This August, he'll launch CeeLo Green Presents Loberace, a Las Vegas spectacular in residency at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. Press materials promise "a ride through the colorful decades of music” with "mind-twisting magic and sexified showgirls.” Basically: CeeLo in Vegas.
"To do something young, fresh, and innovative, going to Vegas just seemed ideal,” CeeLo explains. He's a fan of pageantry and pyrotechnics, and the way he sees it, he's been gambling his entire career. "That's our nature,” he says. "It's win, lose, or draw, then get up and fight again. That's how we survive. The community that is Vegas, that excitement, that danger, that speed, quick-wittedness, charm. It's a playground for those who wish to challenge themselves.” It's also just over an hour from his L.A. condo by plane, which is a big step up from three shows in three time zones in one day. Less wear and tear is key for a guy with back problems so bad that he's had to swear off foursomes (in, uh, golf). Besides, by now he figures he's set the kind of expectations people will pay a premium for.
Purrfect, a one-note actor
Should you yearn for new music from him, however, you may need some patience. He's currently in the studio working on a Goodie Mob reunion album, and their London-based reality show is starting to film this June, but neither will be ready until close to year's end. And Gnarls Barkley is on indefinite hiatus. "I am music,” CeeLo says. "It is my chemical makeup. I can think and I can create and I can record. And I do have a concept for a new album. But at this point, it's running second to the impresario that is CeeLo Green. I don't have to do the music because my life depends on it. I want to be able to do the music because life depends on it. You feel me?”
And what if the people to whom CeeLo has so dedicated his life decide not to wait for this singer-writer-producer-personality-actor-entrepreneur-mentor-freak to flip back around to the front of his hyphenate? "They're not gonna wait,” CeeLo agrees. "I'll meet 'em there.” His face spreads into a grin and he chuckles again as he tucks back into his omelet. "If they're going my way, that is.”
Goodie Mob releases debut album Soul Food
Releases first solo album, Cee Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections
Teams up with Danger Mouse to form Gnarls Barkley; first single, “Crazy,” hits No. 1
Releases The Lady Killer; “Fuck You” storms the international charts
The Voice debuts
Wins fourth and fifth career Grammy Awards for “Fool For You” off The Lady Killer; announces Vegas show CeeLo Green Presents Loberace
Photos by Art Streiber; Styling: Shawn Barton (CeeLo); Grooming: Shawn Jannifer (CeeLo); Prop and wardrobe styling: Eric Hollis; Grooming: Juanita Lyon for Celestine Agency; Kevin Winter/Getty Images (Grammys); Danny Field/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank (studio); Lewis Jacobs/NBC (The Voice); Bryan Bedder/Getty Images (Gnarls Barkley)
A version of this article appears in the June 2012 issue of Fast Company.