Examining Gnarls Barkley's Effect on Hip-Hop

Examining Gnarls Barkley's Effect on Hip-HopEXPAND
Atlantic Records

This month marks ten years since the surprise hit “Crazy” began its absolute stranglehold over pop radio that it didn’t relinquish for the rest of the year. It’s peculiar to think about, because the legacy of “Crazy” is something of an outlier even amongst outliers in music history. While a regular stream of 10, 20, 50, etc.-year anniversary retrospectives have become fairly frequent in the world of music journalism, with even the fondest of memory lane frolics having some startling at least subconscious echo if “that was HOW long ago?” something about “Crazy” just rings different. When the subject of “Crazy’s” ten year anniversary came up at the Weekly, it was one of the few times the discussion was met with “That was ONLY ten years ago?”

If you were a fan of Cee-Lo or Danger Mouse pre-“Crazy,” there’s something about that single and the album St. Elsewhere that’s just especially baffling. Both, despite their critical successes and moments of mainstream coverage, were really nowhere near a mainstream radar at the time. Cee-Lo had spent the past decade as part of defiantly southern rap group Goodie Mob who really coined the sound and the term “dirty south.” At the start of the decade, he drifted away from the group to focus on experimental jazz-heavy rap records that even started to drift away from the act of rapping itself, save for a memorable cameo on “The Brak Show.” Danger Mouse was an emerging underground hip-hop producer who the year before was producing for indie favorites Sage Francis, overlooked '90s rapper Jemini the Gifted One, and Organized Konfusion’s Prince Po’s solo record. He’d also gotten a significant amount of mainstream exposure for his Beatles-centric remix of Jay-Z’s The Black Album known as The Grey Album at the height of mash-up culture’s bleeding edge, as was at the helm of the second Gorillaz album Demon Days.

And they had the absolute biggest song of the year.

For Cee-Lo fans, the majority of even the most begrudging of which were eventually won over by “Crazy’s” melodies, there was something frustrating that one of the greatest rappers on the planet released an album without him rapping at all on it, just singing. This was at the same time fellow Goodie Mob alumni, rapper Big Gipp’s collaboration with Nelly, “Grillz,” was another one of the biggest crossover hits of the year and a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. For the record, Gipp rapped on it.

But Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse fans, regardless how they felt about the project, sort of took it as a one-off, an experimental concept record. It was an experimental producer and an experimental rapper’s album named after a 1980s NBC medical drama with a promotional campaign of cosplaying famous movie characters. The album even had a Violent Femmes cover. Thing is, St. Elsewhere dropped during a year when there really wasn’t much else happening in the mainstream rap genre and thus the gap of Cee-Lo rhyming was really felt. Of all the rap albums released in the calendar year of 2006, the only one to go gold was T.I.’s masterpiece King. Kanye West and 50 Cent took the year off, Jay-Z was President of Def Jam (remember that?) and didn’t release his own comeback (and worst) album Kingdom Come until 4th quarter, Wayne’s outstanding material was only available on the mixtape circuit, and the like of Jim Jones and Clipse didn’t release their projects until very late in the year. Gnarls Barkley went into the last part of 2006 making history by performing with J-Zone, louis logic and The Juggaknots at the final CBGB’s hip-hop show ever.

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While we’re hesitant to casually link correlation with causation, we at the Weekly do speculate about the impact that Gnarls’ rapper-who-doesn’t-rap-on-rap-record had on the immeadiate future of the genre. By the time Gnarls Barkley had their follow up album The Odd Couple ready to hit store shelves, there was suddenly a lot less rapping on rap records. The increasingly blurry mainstream/underground like that artists like 88 Keys, Kid Cudi, B.O.B. and E-Dot were finding success on were as artists introduced as rappers that suddenly were releasing projects with barely any rapping on them. Of course, once the genre had the tremendous shift of 2010 and rap audiences began really wanting to hear new styles of rapping again, the family tree of influences of the past six years seem to have really eclipsed the immediate but wide-reaching impact Gnarls Barkley made.

After that, Danger Mouse went on to become one of the most in-demand producers in the music business. Outside being synonymous with “cool,” Danger Mouse would produce albums for U2, Black Keys, Norah Jones and Beck. Cee-Lo became a mainstream superstar, a judge on The Voice, and recording the surprising vulgar hit “F*** You,” aka “Forget You” if you’re not nasty. There eventually was rapping again on a Cee-Lo album, his 2012 Christmas album Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment featured one rap verse…from beloved new generation muppet Pepe the Prawn. The next summer saw Cee-Lo himself finally rapping again on the Goodie Mob reunion album which even produced the official theme song for the NBA finals. The following year, Cee-Lo said some truly ghastly things about rape of which in interviews he’s still regularly apologizing for

As you can see, since “Crazy” both members of Gnarls Barkley have been absurdly busy and all over pop culture. Perhaps that’s why, despite being the absolute runaway biggest single of the 2006, there really isn’t a whole lot that’s been said about “Crazy’s” tenth anniversary. Danger Mouse shared a rejected remix of “Crazy” that sounds absolutely nothing like the album version or the popular slowed down live version. This week Nebraskan singer Hannah Huston performed “Crazy” with Cee-Lo and finished third on NBC’s The Voice. There hasn’t been a whole lot else. As a stand alone song, “Crazy” has aged incredibly well. That’s why the bizarre space attempting to explain its impact and legacy might be the craziest aspect of all. Bless your soul.


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