“And then you told me that my pain entertained …” — Stew “Working the Wound”

I’ve always thought Gnarls Barkley’s second album, The Odd Couple, was the most slept on record of 2008. So when, inspired by Guillermo E. Brown’s song “Shuffle Mode” to do just that this morning while walking the dog, and having “Blind Mary” from that very LP spin up as the second tune, I got to thinking again about the class I just taught on hip hop, and how I kind of missed the mark and why.

We talk about hip hop misogyny but in the very limited way it always gets discussed: either defensively or reductively. And I think we took at face value the gangsta front of current hip hop, without thinking about how artists like Cee-Lo fit into the mix of what is more than just a particular genre, but a whole culture, even a way of life. We are used to thinking about female singers like Mary J. Blige and even Erykah Badu as hip hop, but male singers are still classed as R&B or Pop.

Or were prior to a certain notoriously vocoder-heavy album from hip hop’s current crown prince. If most critics followed Kanye down the rabbit hole of his misogynistic self-pity on 808s and Heartbreak, it was in part because his resort to singing seemed to admit a male vulnerability back into the rap that all the braggadocio had tried to disavow. If his masochistic display caught on so well, it was not only as the hipster’s alternative to Lil Wayne, but also because Kanye’s brand of narcissistic display cannily reconciled male abjection with the ever-compelling image of the fly guy onamove.  Love Lockdown always reminds me of Lisa Stansfield‘s Cole Porter cover,  Down in the Depths (on the 90th floor) from the original Red, Hot + Blue album. Reclining in glamorous deshabille in posh, plush surroundings is one way of admitting your “softer side”; but its hardly a radical reimagining of gender roles. That’s probably why 808s was both so popular and critically acclaimed.

When he sings on “Heartless” of “the coldest story ever told” about a man “who lost his soul to a woman so heartless” its sounds like the fairy tale that is, complete with “Dr. Evil” a.k.a. the Wicked Witch.

When Cee-Lo goes into similar Grimm’s Brother territory on “Surprise,” the effect is far more chilling:

Now the ending to every story is most enchanting
Now whether its heaven or hell I wear it well
Please forgive me for rambling
I just wanted ya’ll
To know that I don’t know it all
So when that big o’l smile ends up
Being just a disguise

Don’t be surprised …

Can you imagine Kanye admitting to the actual vulnerability of “not knowing it all”? But that’s the starting premise of Cee-Lo’s compellingly unsettling performance of masculinity on The Odd Couple. The video for “Run” hits it perfectly: Dangermouse’s addictive beats set the body rocking hard enough to withstand the sheer anguish of Cee-Lo’s lyrics. Run, he’s a natural disaster …

But this isn’t just a “tears of the clown” act. It’s also another way of imagining desire between men and women outside normative heterosexuality. Take Blind Mary:

She has never seen the sunshine
Yet she’s getting along just fine
She’s not staying, she’s just passing through
Hey, do you mind if I follow you?

I love, Mary!
Blind Mary, marry me
I love, Mary!

I heard a voice say catch me if you can
Before you know it I was holding her hand
It’s harder to imagine than understand
How she knows exactly who I am

She’s my friend, she doesn’t judge me
She has no idea I’m ugly
So I’ve absolutely nothing to hide
Because I’m so much prettier inside

The thing I love about this  song is how it binds male abjection to love for — rather than contempt and hatred for — women. Cee-Lo turns a cliche (inner beauty) on its head by showing how the society that ostensibly extolls it actually continues to stigmatize the blind and ugly. The whole theme of the album — running, following, catching up, moving on — are perfectly summed up here in a singular, heterotopic love.

Blind Mary isn’t a song about (f)ugly pride or disabled rights. It’s about the glamor of certain folks who have figured out how to live in a different sort of ordinary, and how their example, in itself, calls us out from our limited self-conceptions into a different way of being. An odd couple indeed.

The requisite trip to YouTube turned up a couple covers of this tune, to my surprise, the most affecting for me is this by Durand Bernarr. At first its a little American Idol, what with all the melisma. I’m simultaneously compelled and jarred by seeing this world-weary song resituated in the emotive utopia of the teenage bedroom idiom. But as I stay with it it gets better, and when the video segues to a dub version Bernarr performed out in a club, an environment which makes him seem both older and cooler, I have a feeling I would have loved to have been there to hear it live.

Here’s a young woman singing the song. love that the reason she gives is “cuz I know ain’t nobody else ever going to sing it.” That’s so brown punk!