Goodie Mob’s most famous accomplishments—coining the phrase “dirty south” and serving as the launching pad for the career of Cee Lo Green—are now long past. In fact, Green departed the group in 1999, and the original lineup only just recently reunited. Age Against The Machine, then, in addition to acknowledging the Mob’s move toward middle age with its title, marks Goodie Mob’s bid for renewed relevance after a 14-year dry spell. (Everyone seems to have chosen to forget 2004’s Green-less One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.)
Compared to the group’s classics, the album isn’t exactly dirty. Where Goodie Mob’s first two records are hard and minimalistic, Age Against The Machine takes its cues from the love of excess evident in Green’s solo work—it’s hard to imagine anything like horn-fueled war cry “I’m Set” on 1995’s Soul Food. That sensibility makes it easier for Age Against The Machine to seem self-indulgent. Even subtracting a couple of short skits, 18 tracks is a little flabby, especially for a group trying to find its way back to a bygone time of productivity. Sometimes the slickness of the production swallows the rapping, robbing the lyrics of their immediacy.
But on the whole, Age Against The Machine is still a welcome return to form. At the very least, the record proves Goodie Mob can still bring the thunder 15 years after its heyday. The bangers on Age Against The Machine aren’t as jagged or as menacing as most of Soul Food (“Cell Therapy,” for example, which Khujo stares down directly on Age’s “Kolors”), but they make up for it with speed and polish. This is all accomplished somewhat ironically by accommodating the more poppy sensibility of 1999’s uninspiring World Party, which precipitated the breakup. Lead single “Special Education” is a beautiful, violent symphony of exploding industrial funk and rage, the culmination of Green’s description of the record as “Public Enemy on acid.” The theme of conformity and underachievement in schools as well as in the music industry fits neatly into Goodie Mob’s renewed focus on social commentary without becoming jarring, and every verse lands. When a stately but muted chorus by Janelle Monáe is the worst part of a song, something has gone horribly right.
“Special Education” is also the best showcase for Age Against The Machine’s unsurprising MVP, Cee Lo Green—his verse more than proves he can still rap with the best after years of singing. And Green’s successful pop career turns out to be a huge asset to Age Against The Machine. Though a few songs sag with the blandness of World Party, several tracks serve as Top 40-baiting Trojan horses for the social issues the group aimed at on Soul Food and Still Standing. In particular, Green’s belting on “Amy” wouldn’t be out of place as a B-side with “Fuck You,” except perhaps for his refrain: “my very first white girl.” That Age Against The Machine takes Green’s skill with the musical mainstream and gleefully showcases it in a track about interracial relationships and hiding from bigoted white fathers is evidence enough that Goodie Mob is back.