October 16, 2003

On new album, Andre 3000 and Big Boi get sexy and crunktastic, respectively

OutKast's Antwan "Big Boi" Patton and Andre "3000" Benjamin are often thought of as hip-hop's odd couple: two brilliantly talented but fundamentally different men who create some of the most innovative and exciting music of this era. Like any pair with divergent interests, Dre and Big Boi are not always on the same page, but that is what gives their music the layers of inventiveness and complexity that set it apart from the crowd. Over nine years and four studio albums, the group has only improved as it has embraced and celebrated its differences. But their fifth album may be the one that tests the strength of their partnership, as well as the tastes of their audience.

OutKast's latest release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, is an OutKast album only in name, as it consists of two discs, the former written and produced by Big Boi and the latter by Andre. This is not to say that each man locked the studio door while recording his record; although each disc is a separate artistic statement, the two artists collaborate on many tracks on both albums. Despite these gestures of seeming partnership, one still gets the feeling that this may be the last record to ever bear the name of OutKast, as the odd couple is drifting farther and farther into a split over irreconcilable differences. However, Andre and Big Boi would be smart to reconcile, as they continue to benefit from their complementary interests.

Like all previous OutKast albums, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a testament to the commercial viability of genre-expanding hip-hop. Ever since dropping Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik straight out of their Atlanta high school in 1994, Big Boi and Andre have been at the forefront of hip-hop sonic experimentation, putting out killer tunes that you could analyze as well as bop along to. Each album saw them getting more and more creative, with big steps taken from their second album, ATLiens, to 1998's Aquemini and 2000's Stankonia, both considered to be masterpieces not only of modern hip-hop but also of pop music in general. The impact of Stankonia was especially significant, as it became the most critically lauded as well as commercially successful OutKast album, even winning two Grammys in 2001. Stankonia brought OutKast to the boom boxes but also to the headphones of suburban indie kids, and everywhere in between.

So it was with high expectations that OutKast's ever-growing fandom awaited their fifth LP, a three-year interim broken up by only a perhaps prematurely released greatest hits album and a teasingly good new single. But what to make of this new OutKast? The double album shows Dre and Big Boi to be as creative as ever, venturing off into previously uncharted territory. But when does hip-hop cease to be hip-hop? And when does a duo cease to be called a duo?

Big Boi's Speakerboxxx is the disc that more closely resembles previous OutKast material and the one toward which longtime fans of the group might first gravitate. It's full of big beats and infectious hooks, perfect for blasting out of the Escalade, or, in a pinch, your pint-sized Kia. Guest stars abound, as the album relies more on cameo contributions from various hip-hop personalities and Big Boi's studio mastery than on samples or other standard hip-hop crutches.

Although the frenetic "Ghetto Musick" is the only pre-selected single among the 19 tracks (including the prerequisite handful of mostly sub par skits), the album is filled with electrifying musical moments, which run the gamut of influences and styles. "Unhappy" is a genuinely tear-inducing ballad featuring a chorus of falsetto-singing Big Bois, while "Bowtie" is a down-tempo funk groove that recalls Sly and the Family Stone. "Church," co-written by Andre, is a rousing testament to spiritual salvation, which ends with a gospel choir flourish.

The two standout tracks capture Big Boi in two distinct moods. "Knowing" is driven by a sinister clip-clop beat pounded on a wood block and features cautionary lyrics about the dangers of the streets. It also has an incredibly catchy chorus that sticks in your head. On the other hand, the buoyant "Flip Flop Rock" weaves the rapping of Big Boi, Killer Mike, and Jay-Z around a complex beat, as the three men ponder the merits of flip flops versus tennis shoes. One song is made with serious intentions and the other in pursuit of hip-hop hijinks, but each is pulled off with the flair that we've come to expect from Big Boi.

Now where to begin with The Love Below? First of all, it really is not a hip-hop album at all. Whereas Big Boi has chosen to cultivate his gangsta with a heart of gold image on his disc, Andre 3000 fully indulges his bohemian style on his half of the album, hearkening back to Lovesexy-era Prince, and perhaps coitus-crazed Al Green. Dre full-out sings on much of the album, sometimes backed by Big Band-style horns, other times bouncing along to a stuttering beat. On "Hey Ya!," the best song of the lot, he sounds like some late-'60s pop star, perhaps a funked-up Smokey Robinson.

While Speakerboxxx varies in mood and subject matter, the tracks on The Love Below are more of a piece, fleshing out a complete portrait of Andre Benjamin, Psychedelic Ladies' Man. Nearly every song is either about love or, more specifically, the physical act for expressing said emotion. Dre often out-Princes Prince, daring to let his eccentricities, and his sexual appetites, run wild. In addition, Dre's skits about asking God for a girl and the dreaded Morning After, among others, fit better with his disc than Big Boi's do with his. Plus, they just work better in the spreading of the Andre gospel: enjoy your fabulously sexy self.

In considering the merits of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, perhaps fans should be happy that they are getting more than they paid for. For a mere $12, you get an album of 38 vastly inventive pop songs, two discs featuring artists who have perhaps not even reached their creative apex. On the double album, Big Boi and Dre sound like two men splitting off in very different directions; the name OutKast has now expanded to contain innumerable music genres and styles, reflecting the interests of the two brilliant musicians. But isn't that what we've always liked about OutKast: the idea of the hip-hop odd couple? Although their differences are now more pronounced, there is no reason to think that this pair should soon get divorced, or that we, their fans/children, should feel left out in the cold.