June 13, 2011


CeeLo Green's Soul Desire

CeeLo Green's "I Want You (Hold On to Love)" got its subtitle rather late in the game—it's not called that on CeeLo's album The Lady Killer. In fact, "hold on to love" appears nowhere in the song itself. It may just need to be there to flag this particular song: given CeeLo's deep-soul vocal, the song's rich Gamble-and-Huff-style string arrangement, and the general tone of its lyrics and sound, it'd be easy enough to confuse with some of the several zillion other songs called "I Want You."

"I Want You" might, actually, be one of the most often used song titles of the past half-century, although it's a little too blunt a phrase to have been used much before then. The Beatles and Bob Dylan, Kiss and Elvis Costello, Savage Garden and Third Eye Blind, Elastica and Inspiral Carpets have all written songs by that title. (Do have a look at that last version, featuring Mark E. Smith of the Fall doing his thing while the band attempt to play a much more straightforward song behind him.)

It's even more inescapable as an R&B title: there was a hit called "I Want You" by Shana in 1989 (hard-line doctrinaire Latin freestyle), another "I Want You" by Jody Watley in 1991, an "I Want You" by Thalia in 2003, and of course Janet Jackson's "I Want You" in 2004, which—like Cee Lo's song—reached back to an earlier era of soul and had old-fashioned strings for "sweetening" all over it. Common, with whom CeeLo has collaborated a bunch of times, even released his own "I Want You" in 2007.

The godfather of all R&B songs called "I Want You," though, is Marvin Gaye's 1976 bridge between his pop-soul past and the funk/disco moment. There's a wonderful little film of Gaye rehearsing it in that year that finds him lying on a couch, directing his band through the changes of a rugged early version of the song. The production of Gaye's finished version, though, makes it sound a bit more like CeeLo's—and that can't be entirely an accident, considering how similar their sentiment is.

"I want you to want me just as I want you," Gaye sings. CeeLo might be underscoring the idea a little too strongly by adding "genuinely and sincerely"—but he might also be following the example of Las Vegas legend and notable clotheshorse Liberace, whose image appears on a painting behind CeeLo a few times, and who's parodied by the "Loberace" logos earlier in the video.

Gaye's "I Want You" has become a little bit of a standard: it's not a signature song of his, like "Let's Get It On" or "Sexual Healing," but it opens itself to other singers' interpretations. In 1991, Robert Palmer had a minor hit with his medley of Gaye's "I Want You" and "Mercy Mercy Me"; the same year, Marc Nelson also hit the charts with a New Jack Swing version of Gaye's "I Want You." And Madonna recorded it with Massive Attack in 1995.

It's a clever title to use if you want to evoke a couple of generations' worth of soul music, in other words, and the allusions layered into CeeLo's "I Want You" don't stop there. A lot of the song's lyrics are titles of other songs, strung end-to-end: Alicia Bridges' 1978 disco one-hit wonder "I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round)," Elvis Presley's 1956 hit "Don't Be Cruel," the Commodores' "Three Times a Lady." In one line, Green name-checks the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" (which like a lot of other Beatles songs had some soul currency—Richie Havens recorded a memorable version in 1971, for instance); in the next, he mentions Roy Hawkins' 1951 blues "The Thrill Is Gone," probably best known in B.B. King's masterful 1970 version.

And what does all this add up to as a new song? It's hard to say: the closer you look at CeeLo's lyrics, the less sense they make. (Is it a kiss-off or a come-on? Is it about a "you" or a "her"? What does "I like her 'cause she's smart but she's still sexy" even mean?) To the extent that Green's "I Want You" is a seduction, it's a recycled seduction—a line that's worked dozens of times before. Which doesn't mean it doesn't work again.