Goodie Mob didn't have to reunite. But it did. Nearly 30 years after its debut, the Atlanta rap quartet has said that it can't trust the current crop of cartel-obsessed rappers and the music industry that enables them. The future of its hometown hip-hop is just too precious. Goodie Mob fought too hard to simply walk away, and now they're back with their fifth studio album, Age Against The Machine.
Along with Dungeon Family affiliates OutKast, Goodie Mob established the Dirty South sound in the '90s, a time when New York and California bickered for rap's reign -- laughing off the rest. The group, however, kept their heads down -- and up -- creating a platform for Southern rap with its first two albums, 1995's Soul Food and 1998's Still Standing. The group -- comprising CeeLo, T-Mo, Khujo and Big Gipp -- turned songs into gritty and gospel-inflected town meetings, speaking out about issues close to home. In Soul Food, for example, the rappers debated whether to feel protected or imprisoned by the gated communities and housing projects of the South, ultimately deciding that the struggle would pay off.
In its comeback album, though -- the first to feature all four members in 14 years -- Goodie Mob moves beyond its hometown issues, turning a weary and wary gaze on these trap-rap stars clamoring to fill T.I.'s spot while keeping an eye on the money. "Y'all got some of the biggest and greatest rappers," Big Gipp said at an album listening session, "y'all" meaning Atlanta. "Some of these rappers got all this money and still don't have shit to say."
That's not to say that Age Against the Machine doesn't have its own issues -- some of them natural after years of separation. For example, the record divides its time between engrossing rap exchanges and CeeLo's glittering pop present (The Voice! Loberace in Vegas!), crooning and rapping about being too much of a freak to handle. These two conceits never fully merge, however, which is a bit disappointing considering how well Goodie Mob handled this task on Soul Food, which incorporated that Soul sound via the Serenity Prayer throughout until it felt earned.
This inability to bridge past and present is perhaps most striking in "Nexperience," in which CeeLo tackles the same subject manner as "The Experience," Still Standing's n-word rumination. A rabid-sounding CeeLo ends the song on a belching and oddly misogynistic note: "You used to be my black queen, now you just a n---a bitch." Something seems lost in the retranslation.
The track "Amy" -- as in, "my very first white girl" -- inspires a lukewarm return of the Motown-inspired showboat from CeeLo's 2010 solo album The Lady Killer. It bears good intentions, but it also feels as if the rest of his rap brothers are waiting in the wings. This is sort of behavior that misses the point of a reunion.
Despite that disconnect, however, the record is still powerful: For a glorious stretch, and like many comic book Issue No. 1s, Age feels fueled by brute force and personal vengeance. In the same way that Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim stands on its action sequences, Age Against The Machine keeps us riveted with its underlying current of force and vengeance.
The album's sonic setting is bare-boned and post-apocalyptic: bleeps and bloops, rumbling bass and Skrillex skronk, and what honestly sounds like giant robots navigating through wreckage. From it all, Goodie Mob emerges and executes what it calls an Attack of the Clones in the track "Special Education": striking back against aspiring trap-rap stars hoping to get rich quick, plus the music executives making the same sort of bets.
As much as Goodie Mob can within a succinct pop-song structure, the group launches a few full-fledged rap attacks as each member reprises its respective role: the pointed-as-ever T-Mo, the meditative Big Gipp, the no-nonsense Khujo and rambling philosopher CeeLo.
The stomping and squelching song "Valleujah" dashes through mentions of the Boston Marathon bombings, The Hunger Games and Psalm 23 to depict a merciless chase for fame. The airy "Kolors" sounds like a dream sequence at first, but the group's spoken-word flow steers steadily through memories of gang life and how they escaped off the strength of their own bloodlines.
One of the album's most satisfying notes actually comes courtesy of T.I.; in the rumbling "Pinstripes," he growls slightly as he references Goodie Mob's 1995 hit "Cell Therapy" to pinpoint how powerful and paranoid he felt at his past: "Don't fuck with me 'cause I'm mental / Like, 'Who is that at my window? Who is that at my window?'" He does this to ward off actor rappers, but also humbly pay respect to the group who named the region that he represents, the Dirty South.
Age Against the Machine knows what sort of album it wishes to be: this larger-than-life crusade for mobilization, rap for seniority's sake that's still wildly imaginative. But it also seems like more than that. Just take a look at CeeLo's roll call in "I'm Set": "I got 'Jo, I got Mo, got OG Gipp and I'm set." Yes, despite its aggressive undertones and some of the growing pains inherent in a reunion, the record also makes a convincing argument for the sake of brotherhood.
Goodie Mob didn't have to reunite, no, but we're glad they did.
Age Against The Machine drops on August 27 via The Right Records and is streaming live at Amazon