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Cee-Lo, ‘Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine’ (Arista)

The wages of sin can make for a decent salary, and choirboy-turned-microphone fiend Thomas “Cee-Lo” Callaway knows this well. “You get rich talking shit / So why shouldn’t I?” he asks near the end of this second solo trip–before adding: “I’m just playing / But that couldn’t go without saying.”

He is playing, but only just. Not since Al Green found God in a scalding pot of grits has a Southern soul man defined his music so completely by the struggle between goodness and baaadness. You heard it when Cee-Lo (who attended the same Atlanta alternative high school as OutKast’s Andre 3000) was one fourth of Goodie Mob, a trailblazing MC clan whose schizophrenia finally imploded on 1999’s World Party. And you sure enough heard it onCee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, the funkadelic 2002 solo debut on which Cee-Lo draped himself in church robes, feather boas, and goth-hippie wigs and sang, rapped, and swore off thuggery while threatening to put “a bullet hole in your soul.” Things remain complicated on the aptly titled Soul Machine. “See, I’ve been having a hard time selling my albums lately,” he confides on “Die Tryin’.” Um, dude: The 300,000 unitsImperfections moved ain’t chicken feed. But I guess, like all true preachers, the man is hungry for as many converts as possible.

So Timbaland and the Neptunes drop by to make some marketable magic. And it’s a testament to both Cee-Lo’s vision and the producers’ artistic sympathy that the collaborations maintain a coherent, vintage R&B vibe. On “I’ll Be Around,” Tim lays down a loping, go-go-flavored conga groove while Cee-Lo brags home-style and riffs on classic soul lyrics; the Neptunes-produced “Passion Fruit” updates the’70s Hi Records sound as gracefully as the Reverend Al’s own 2003 comeback album. Like Cee-Lo’s debut,Soul Machine is mainly a speed-rhyming, positivist playa party, at least until a dark song trilogy (“Evening News,” “Scrap Metal,” and “Glockapella”) that meditates on gangsta metaphors from the inside. It’s a fascinating detour into a split personality, although they may have a short life on your iPod menu. On “Glockapella,” Cee-Lo raps over gunshot percussion: “You’re forcing me to walk this way / Maybe my album will get bought this way.” Well, no–we’re not, actually. But we respect the candor.