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08.24.10

Best Effing Song of the Summer

Could a song that has the F-word in its title and isn’t available on iTunes become summer’s biggest smash—at the tail-end of August? Listen and decide.

It is impossible to listen just once to Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” the first single from his forthcoming album, Lady Killer, and a viral hit since the instant it landed on YouTube on Friday. It demands to be listened to twice, three times, or more, all in a row. It’s the kind of pop song you want to commit to memory immediately, just to be armed when it comes on the radio—and since a radio edit has just been unveiled, it won’t be long.

The conceit of the song couldn’t be simpler. The singer sees his ex with a new man who can afford to buy her things that he cannot, and over gospel-soul organ, guitar, male backing vocals, and loose-limbed percussion, he flaunts his petulance. It’s a comic cry of pain that shortchanges neither humor nor pathos; at one point, during the bridge, he practically falls to his knees. “I still love you!” Cee-Lo squalls—in effect, throwing a tantrum, the perfect cherry on top of a song titled “Fuck You.”

Click Below to Listen to the Song


Lyric video for Cee-Lo Green's new song "F U."

Video screenshot

But that’s not what the song is really about—not in the world into which it was born, which is also the world that made it. The Wall Street shysters, the vicious Tea Party leaders, the BP executives: Who, living in 2010, didn’t already want to scream “fuck you!” to the loathsome rich people who seemed hell-bent on ruining our lives? Cee-Lo and Bruno Mars, co-writer and co-producer of the song, have grafted that sentiment onto a song that sounds, but for some obvious differences, like it could have been sung by the Temptations in 1968. Of course nobody can resist it.

It’s not the first time Cee-Lo has taken the public’s temperature so cannily. Born Thomas Callaway in 1974, he became known as a singer and MC with the Atlanta rap quartet Goodie Mob, and collaborated frequently with OutKast. After going solo in 2000 (and adding “Green” to his moniker), Cee-Lo made two wide-ranging, persona-tweaking albums by himself. In a very different vein, he produced and co-wrote “Don’t Cha,” a #2 hit for the Pussycat Dolls in 2005. That year he also hooked up with another Georgian, producer Danger Mouse from college-town Athens, who in 2004 made his name with a stunt remix of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with music from the Beatles’ double “white album,” titled The Grey Album.

Dubbed Gnarls Barkley, the duo was a showcase for the more macabre end of Cee-Lo’s lyrical imagination. In that way, Gnarls’ first single, “Crazy,” functioned as the duo’s theme. But in 2006—the year after Katrina, the year Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation on environmental devastation became a hit movie, the year old media began to panic in earnest, a year that seemed to shift with a lurch—“Crazy” became everybody’s theme, a song so of its moment that everyone from Jack White (with the Raconteurs) to Nelly Furtado to Bryan Adams to camp cabaret duo Kiki & Herb was moved to cover it live.

Still, by Gnarls Barkley’s second album, The Odd Couple (2008), Cee-Lo’s cuckoo act had started to seem formulaic. That’s another reason “Fuck You” is so refreshing. “Maybe I’m crazy . . . possibly,” went the refrain of Gnarls’ hit. But from the title on down, “Fuck You” contains no ambiguity whatsoever—a tonic in a time where things have only gotten more confused.

That’s true of the music as well. R&B has tended to be the most consistently forward-looking of pop styles, but over the past few years it’s been bitten hard by the retro bug, as recent albums from Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and Raphael Saadiq demonstrate. Sometimes referred to as “throwback,” this style emits a very different vibe from the “neo-soul” codified by D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, ’60s punchy rather than ’70s languid. It’s also become a comfortable go-to style for current artists—there’s a lot of it on the new Fantasia album, for example. Cee-Lo has utilized it plenty—Gnarls Barkley’s “Run,” from The Odd Couple, is a clear example—and “Fuck You” cements it in R&B’s modern firmament.

The song also bridges R&B generations in its subject matter. There’s a long tradition in the music that’s probably best summed up by a line from Gwen Guthrie’s 1986 hit, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent”: “No romance without finance.” At one point during “Fuck You,” the backing vocals throw in a quick, “Uh-oh, she’s a gold digger/Just thought you should know, nigga,” their churchy, clipped delivery giving the lines a comic spin that leavens the sentiment a bit. Like nearly everything else in the song, this functions as a hook in itself—nearly every part of the track embeds itself in your hum matrix sooner or later—but it’s also an explicit nod to Kanye West’s 2005 #1, “Gold Digger.” For that matter, “Fuck You” also functions as a response to TLC’s 1999 “No Scrubs,” in which the R&B trio chided men who didn’t measure up to the singers’ standards: “A scrub is a guy who can’t get no love from me/Hanging out the passenger’s side of his best friend’s ride.”

The difference between 1999 and 2010 is that today, nearly everyone is that scrub. Cee-Lo’s song is fleet and immediate, but it wouldn’t have nearly so much resonance if the man who’d stolen his woman weren’t loaded. “Fuck You” has obviously been touched by the economy, but it’s not explicitly about the economy—that might have ruined the song, the way it does Irish band the Script’s terrible new single “For the First Time,” about a couple brought together by being out of work. That’s corny. It’s also unrealistic, since unemployment tends to induce more rage than insight—something else Cee-Lo’s song gets correct.

The only monkey wrench in the quick and deserved ascent of “Fuck You” as 2010’s summer jam is its timing. Cee-Lo put the video up just a few days ago, as summer is drawing to a close, and the single isn’t scheduled to appear on the iTunes store until October 4. That’s a long time to wait for a song that’s already gotten a million and a half YouTube plays. MP3 copies have been floating around, of course, and people are as likely to stream something as download it at this stage. In fact, I’d argue that it’s partly because it went to YouTube first that the song became a hit—not simply because it made the video easy for blogs to embed, though that helped, but because of the video’s basic nature.

Though a “real” video is set to premiere later this week, the version of “Fuck You” online now is marked by a simple, kinetic visual presentation: the song’s lyrics appear, follow-the-bouncing-ball style, against a series of basic colors. That’s it. But the result is dynamic, mirroring the song’s throwback style with its own blend of old-fashioned (some virtual film scratches are thrown in to give the clip a vintage look) and ultra-modern (the lyrics are presented in hip typographers Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s Knockout font). It’s difficult to imagine that a people-doing-things video would enhance the song more than the one that introduced it to the world. As Cee-Lo himself put it, “Ain’t that some shit?”

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Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign 'O' the Times (Continuum, 2004), part of the 33 1/3 book series, and writes columns for The Stranger, Cowbell, and Flavorwire. He lives in Brooklyn.