Cee-Lo's inclusion of a few guest collaborators -- most notably Blues Traveler's John Popper -- on his 2002 solo debut, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, was adventurous. But while the album was critically praised, its wide stylistic range confused urban audiences, for whom the central messages of hope and redemption were intended. Those audiences were used to Cee-Lo's more radio-ready work with Goodie Mob, the group that, along with fellow Dungeon Family members OutKast, birthed the Dirty South party-funk sound (a.k.a. crunk) that dominates urban radio today. Thankfully, Soul Machine fits comfortably within the urban format by including well-known faces like Ludacris, the Neptunes, Timbaland, DJ Premier and Jazze Pha, and by cleverly referencing some of hip-hop's most popular songs, like Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie" and DMX's "Ruff Ryders Anthem." Such populist devices should help this album grab the audience that Perfect Imperfections didn't quite reach.
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But those less worried about accessibility will appreciate the fact that Cee-Lo demands a different aesthetic from his collaborators than what's typically expected. The soulful shuffle of "Passion Fruit" doesn't sound like a prototypical Neptunes beats 'n' bleeps offering. Instead, Pharrell Williams and Cee-Lo sing from the soul without concern for catchy hooks. Timbaland breaks out the marching-band horns and down-home country attitude reserved for artists he truly identifies with as he raps on and produces "I'll Be Around." And DJ Premier's sinister and tense backing for "Evening News" (which also features the distinctive country twang of a new talent named Honey Moon) sounds like nothing he's done before. Cee-Lo's also doing his part to smash the tempo bias in hip-hop and soul music, which he does most competently through the gospel-house inflections of "Livin' Again" and the cartoonish rapid-fire pace of "Child's Play," featuring Ludacris. The end result is incredibly tasty and just as filling as his debut. Soul Machine goes down sweeter and easier while still managing to cross a few musical boundaries.