08 June 2006

No One's Cooler than Gnarls Barkley (I Checked)

When I've had too much to drink--which means I've had, like, half a glass of champagne--I sometimes go off on how much I hate the "shelf/self" rhyme in song lyrics. Countless songwriters use the couplet. Take this sample from "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" by Georgia Satellites:

My honey, my baby, don't put my love up on no shelf
She said, "Don't hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself."

That's usually how we hear it. Some singer doesn't want his or her love to be put up on a shelf. Or they don't wan't to be on a shelf themselves. Or they're sorry they put their lover on a shelf. You get the picture. The idea of love on a shelf appears in so many songs that you'd think the general public considers the notion all the time.

But really? No one ever does. When in daily speech have you overheard a colleague saying, "Seriously, Dan, I love Margie, but she keeps putting my love on a shelf?" Never.

This cliche exists only within the bubble of songwriting, which makes it extremely phony and unconvincing.

The reason it's used, of course, is that "shelf" is about the only word that rhymes with "self," so songwriters have little other choice. (Except "pelf," but how often do you get to say that?) The clunky, unnatural phrase is built out of necessity. I still hate it, though.

But sometimes songwriters will use the couplet in a surprising way, and I fall in artistic love with them. Well, that can't be the only reason, but it helps.

Take Gnarls Barkley (awesomely aping Napoleon Dynamite to your left), the hip-hop/ rock/ funk/ just-plain-weird musical duo comprised of DJ Dangermouse (left) and rapper-singer Cee-Lo Green. Their debut album "St. Elsewhere" is one of the most exciting I've heard in years. It's just so... hard to describe. The music is dance-able, but it's not dance music. It rocks, but there's too much soul singing to make it rock.

But Gnarls Barkley's music doesn't need a category. It's obvious from the first song--"Go-Go Gadget Gospel"--that these men know exactly what they're doing, so we should trust them.

And unlike, say, Fall Out Boy, their weirdness doesn't seem like an act. (Come on Fall Out Boy... aren't your song titles just a little too cheeky?) I know for a fact that Cee-Lo has been mashing up rock and hip-hop for years on his solo records, and DJ Dangermouse famously smushed The Beatles' "White Album" and Jay-Z's "Black Album" into "The Grey Album." Gnarls Barkley is the fascinating outcome of two unique artists pushing each other to new places.

We get to savor rewards like the song "Crazy," a soul jam which was number one in England for nine weeks. Or "The Boogie Monster," which takes a sample of "The Monster Mash" and turns it into a creepy, funky jam.

Along with the excellent songs, we also get to enjoy the rare hip-hop act who seems to have a sense of humor about themselves.
Take a look at the photos! Granted, some of their songs deal with serious subjects like suicide--and quite well--but most of the music is simple, loopy fun. They just want to talk about how awesome they are. Or they want to talk about how they're Transformers. Like the cartoon. I'm not kidding, and I'm so happy I'm not.

And sometimes they want to talk about feng shui. At less than two minutes, the song "Feng Shui" distillates why they are so cool. Over a slinky beat, Cee-Lo raps about how he is so balanced that everything in his life has to adhere to the Chinese philosophy of interior design. "You're welcome to stay," he tell us, "but even your company must compliment the feng shui." That's some serious shit.

Cool beat, cool subject. But best of all? The following lyrics. Describing his house, Cee-Lo says he has

a plant, a pet, books on a shelf
and a frame on the wall where you can picture yourself

Which makes perfect sense! The trite rhyme is revitalized!

Just one more reason that no one is cooler than Gnarls Barkley.

(p.s.--They're definitely cooler than me. It took me over a week to figure out that their name is a play on basketball star Charles Barkley.)



At 9:14 PM, Anonymous katy said...

One thing I respect about Gnarls Barkley is that the video for "Crazy" doesn't feature obvious images of the artists, which is virtually unheard of these days. I like watching those ink spots, you know? It's nice to see a video attempt to be something other than merely another silly and self-glorifying magazine spread for the artists involved.

And while I know it's slightly off the subject, I can't resist bringing up my favorite example of half-assed sorry rhyming in a pop song. In my opinion, this example is so silly that it goes around the bend and actually impoves the song with its silliness.

In "Where is the Love?," the Black-Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake give us:

"But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you hate then you're bound to get irate, yeah
Madness is what you demonstrate
And that's exactly how anger works and operates
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight
Take control of your mind and meditate
Let your soul gravitate to the love, y'all ..."

Of course, the first thing to point out is the half-assed rhyming of "race" and "space," which doesn't even really sound like a rhyme in the song because of how it falls rhythmically.

Then there is the sequence of eight words that rhyme with "ate." (When you listen to the song, it's fun to count them dramatically on your fingers while you dance.)

These eight rhyming "ate" words include, of course, "operates," which doesn't REALLY rhyme -- and allow the speaker to share fairly weak insights such as "when you hate, you're bound to get irate," and awkward sentence structures like "madness is what you demonstrate."

The whole thing is tied up with some spiritual advice -- to meditate, of course, and let your soul "gravitate" to the love. I mean, come on. That's pretty clear.

It's so clear you might say it's fate. Let's love now, and choose not to wait. I'd think of more, but it's getting late -- and tomorrow I've got too much on my plate. I don't want my rhyme to be second rate.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...


As always, you are good at recalling some of the best worst lyrics of recent times. Thanks for your insights... and for remembering that Justin Timberlake was involved on that song. He doesn't get official credit on the single, but Timbs will always be showing us where the love is.

At 6:06 AM, Anonymous Sophie said...

I'm a loyal Amateur Gourmet reader who's also a radio presenter in UK so I flicked to your blog with interest.

And bingo if you haven't got two pieces straight off (R kelly and Gnarls) that totally sum up my point of view!

Looking forward to reading more.

Also, commenter Katy? I TOTALLY agree that the Gnarls ink spot video is hypnotic!

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haha. I think you're a little off the mark with "Feng Shui", but that's kind of good.

Look -

"Even down to what I have on.
They do wonder to what.
Extent I have gone."

"If I'm in your town, my needles down,
on the groove.
On site they know my song.
It ain't slow and it sho ain't long.
You see I do not play."

"And everything I say is
calculated appropriated
Written and arranged in Feng Shui!"

And Feng Shui is not Japanese. Definitely Chinese.

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

Whoops! Feng Shui is Chinese. I've edited the post to correct my mistake.

At 2:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's more to it though.

The guy starts off by saying that his house is done out in Feng Shui. Then he says that so are his clothes (!)

And closes by saying that "everything I say is calculated appropriated
Written and arranged in Feng Shui".

He's not praising Feng Shui, he's mocking its most ardent proponents. Don't worry though - I don't think everyone was meant to get the joke.


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