Expectations are intrusive enough when you’re dealing with a reunion from a long-dissolved beloved musical act. With the new Goodie Mob album, Age Against the Machine, that reunion is coupled with a reinvention: 14 years separate this record and the pop-leaning World Party, the last album Goodie Mob made with all four members and something of a contentious stylistic departure in itself. Things get even cloudier if you factor in the styles that the core members have been indulging since — the dearth of straight-up rap on Cee-Lo’s solo and Gnarls Barkley work; the engagingly indie-weird side project Willie Isz that Khujo did with Jneiro Jarel. A return to the Dungeon Family-driven vital spot hit by first two albums Soul Food and Still Standing seems unlikely in this context — this isn’t a group that seems that interested in looking backward.
Instead, Age Against the Machine reintroduces their Dirty Southern sociopolitical edge over a string of beats that are just glossy enough to dupe the unwary into thinking it’s a crossover record. The production slate includes contributions by neo-funk oddball Jack Splash and executive production by Cee-Lo himself. But the only real underlying factor tying it all together is a sense of scale: blasts of fog-machine arena rock, spaceship-takeoff club-rap futurism, and manic chase-scene orchestration run through a record that conflates commercial potential with over-the-top bombast.
That’s the bait, at least, but the hook runs deep: The political message has scarcely been diluted, with cuts like “Power” and “Nexperience” cutting to the heart of racism’s omnipresence and “Kolors” ruminating over gang identity crises. Even the most upbeat cut, the retro-soul dance track “Amy,” joyfully celebrates a love affair with “my very first white girl.” Cee-Lo stands out in all his performances, but as a rapper with a sing-song cadence rather than a singer, and his theatrical tendencies helps make him sound righteously pissed and intelligently defiant as ever. T-Mo, Big Gipp, and Khujo put in strong enough work to keep this from turning into some kind of one-man show, though, and if this doesn’t feel like 1995, it still feels like Goodie Mob.