Over the years, Southern rap has come to be associated mostly with hit-factory labels like No Limit and Cash Money, or in its early days Miami bass music. In general, it's never been afforded much critical respect, but that started to change in the '90s, when Atlanta established itself as the home of intelligent, progressive Southern hip-hop. Despite some excellent predecessors, Goodie Mob's debut album, Soul Food, is arguably the city's first true classic, building on the social conscience of Arrested Development and the street smarts and distinctive production of OutKast. In fact, the production team behind the latter's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Organized Noize, is also present here, and really hit their stride with a groundbreaking signature sound that reimagines a multitude of Southern musical traditions. Soul Food is built on spare, funky drum programs, Southern-fried guitar picking in the Stax/Volt vein, occasional stabs of blues harmonica, and strong gospel overtones in the piano licks and meditative keyboards. There's an even stronger spiritual flavor in the group's lyrics, based on a conviction that religion has been the saving grace of African-American culture as it's endured centuries of oppression. The album even opens with lead rapper Cee-Lo singing an original spiritual called "Free." Goodie Mob is firmly grounded in reality, though -- they rail against a system stacked against poverty-stricken blacks, and are more than willing to defend themselves in a harsh environment, as on the gritty street tales "Dirty South," the eerie single "Cell Therapy," and "The Coming." The meat of the album, however, lies in its more reflective moments: the philosophical "Thought Process"; "Sesame Street," a reminiscence on growing up poor and black; "Guess Who," one of hip-hop's greatest mama tributes ever; and the warm title track, which is about exactly what it says. If soul food was aptly named for its spiritual nourishment, the same is true of this underappreciated gem.
Steve Huey, Rovi