By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
OutKast is the first hip-hop act to notice that the old-school epithet "funky fresh" is an oxymoronthe shock of the new bearing a whiff of the old. That was the idea behind Stankonia, a de facto tribute album that was every bit as original as the George Clinton records that inspired it. From their malodorous headquarters on "Planet Stankonia," Big Boi and Andre 3000 proclaimed themselves "So Fresh, So Clean," serving notice that "funky" doesn't always mean funky. Stankoniaemphasized "stank" and "clean," earthy and space-age, in roughly equal measure: The guitar playing was a mess, the electronic beats were pristine, Andre 3000 sang more than he rapped, Big Boi's delivery had gotten spikier. It was there in the songs, too: "?" was a tidy micro-masterpiece, "Stankonia (Stanklove)" was a hazy jam session, and "B.O.B." was both.
Their new collection, Big Boi & Dre Present . . . OutKast, adds three new tracks to a dozen OutKast chestnuts from their first four albums. Because it's designed for neophyte fans, it aims for accessibility, so that even the weirdest tracks seem somehow fresh and clean. The dub-rap experiment "Elevators (Me & You)" still sounds as radical as it did in 1996, an echo-centric investigation of the space between failure and success. Big Boi and Dre Presentproves that OutKast's musical evolution has been slow and steady: Their 1993 hit "Player's Ball" is a darkly comic Christmas carol that wouldn't have sounded very out of place on Stankonia. Big Boi still hews closely to the quick, slick style that first put OutKast on the maphe used to be "cooler than a polar bear's toenails," but now he's "cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm." But Andre 3000 has taken a more whimsical path: Stankoniafound him alternately crooning about love and rhyming about "silver-back orangutans."
Of the three new songs on Big Boi and Dre Present, the most inspired is "The Whole World," which is also OutKast's current single. Accompanied by a simple, airy keyboard arrangement, Andre 3000 leads a sing-along that has been stuck in my head ever since I first heard it: "The whole world loves it when you don't get down/And the whole world loves it when you make that sound/And the whole world loves it when you're in the news/And the whole world loves it when you sing the blues." The more you listen, the harder it is to decipher. Is it an inspirational message to pessimists, or a sardonic slap at player-haters? Does "get down" refer to dancing or depression? "The whole world loves it when you sing the blues"is the emphasis on "sing" or "blues"?
Even in Darkness
The guys from Goodie Mob don't have the same knack for creative ambiguity. If the choice is dirty or clean, there's no question where they standas lead vocalist Cee-Lo once put it, "I'm from the dirty, filthy, nasty Dirty South." Together, Goodie Mob and OutKast form the nucleus of an Atlanta-based collective called the Dungeon Family, whose first album under that name, Even in Darkness, appeared in stores a few weeks before the OutKast collection. Listen to enough OutKast and you might start to think that Big Boi and Andre 3000 represent two opposite poles of hip-hop. Even in Darknessis a reminder of how similar the two halves of OutKast areboth feature lean, clear voices, and both deliver tight, belletristic rhymes. By contrast, Cee-Lo wheezes and testifies like a preacher on helium, Backbone (who released a charming, nonsensical debut earlier this year) slides between baritone and soprano, and Big Rube declaims theosophical prose in a thick, Sudafed voice.
Most hip-hop posse albums are more neighborhood charity projects than all-star jam sessions, but Even in Darknessis a great success, every bit as cohesive (and at least as good) as the latest release by a certain Staten Island confederation of roughly equal size. "6 Minutes (Dungeon Family It's On)" adds a tune to the old Slick Rick chorus, then gives nine MCs a chance to spit. Freddie Calhoun (formerly known as Cool Breeze) scores big early on with a puzzling couplet: "Every time I meet a girl, she's putting her hand in her purse/And when my next record drop, I ain't wearing no shirt." But then Cee-Lo steals the show, sing-rapping a greasy bit of boilerplate: "Time me/I promise in 60 seconds you'll be intrigued and overwhelmed and obligated to rewind me."
The musical heart of the Dungeon Family is the production trio Organized Noise, who created most of the beats on the album, working with the Dungeon Family house band. Every song features live bass or guitar or keyboards, and most feature backup singers and heavy beats; unlike Big Boi and Dre Present, Even in Darknessrarely threatens to float off into space. This is a dirtier, messier world than OutKast's, filled with anguished cries and the occasional outright mistake. (As usual, Khujo ignores the laws of meter and rhyme at his own peril, and ours.) But while OutKast's world is more or less fully formed, some of the other Dungeon Family rappers are still struggling with self-definition, and not all of the resulting accidents are unhappy. In the middle of "On & On & On," T-Mo unveils a brand-new flow, a kind of melodic shouting that meshes perfectly with the synthetic harpsichord of the track. And then there's Freddie Calhoun, whoif I'm not mistakeninterrupts his own verse to exclaim, apropos of nothing, "The enjambment!"
Still, you have to sympathize for the dozen Dungeon Family members who aren't named Big Boi or Andre 3000. It must be hard to stay focused in the recording booth after you've heard Big Boi proclaim himself "cleaner than the urine of a two-time felon." In all fairness, it should be noted that Andre 3000's new vocal style was probably inspired by Cee-Lo's sing-rapping. But that's small consolation when the two go toe-to-toe. On "Crooked Booty," Cee-Lo builds to a thrilling gospel crescendo: "Best believe I'm a breathe and break bread before I die/I know it's live and let live but my Lord won't let me lie." So what does Andre 3000 do? He comes in like a fresh breeze on a funky track, adding a mischievous chorus: "We don't speak proper English, when we walk we strut our stuff/ We act like life is gravy, even though it's oh-so-rough." It's a kind of good-natured bad faith, a winking defense of craft and craftinessthe important word here is "act." Cee-Lo's joyful noise is compelling, but OutKast's neat illogic is irresistible. Why shouldn't the dirty, filthy, nasty Dirty South have the cleanest rhymes on the planet?