Six hot jawns into the game, the release of any OutKast album is an Event. They’ve given us the most scrumptious moments counter-nihilistic hiphop has offered in recent memory. But none has loomed as more Event-ful than Speakerboxx/The Love Below, because it may also be the group’s last. This time the OutKast banner flies over two solo albums:
The first in jewel-box order by the rowdy and irrepressible Big Boi, the second by the belovedly fly eccentric Andre 3000, latest link in a lengthy chain of supersoulful African American eccentrics stretching from Charley Patton and Jelly Roll Morton to Andre’s guiding light in eclectic negritude, Prince. All folk who wielded weirdness like a scalpel, albeit one that carves order out of the cosmic slop of their free-associative funky imaginations.
Since hiphop is now the Kmart of the American id, where our dark and unconscious shit turns into shinola, we need its democratic ideals to be messy. The Roots’ Ahmir Thompson credits crack for the genius of ’80s hiphop music, and faults Bill Clinton for the generally agreed suckitude of the music’s ’90s genus. Fair enough, but Bill Clinton also presided over the rise of hiphop’s Dirty South oligarchies, an apt legacy for the country prez who whipped his dick out in the Oval Office. Just as dirty Bill kept the White House close to the outhouse, Southern hiphop’s progressive wing was sustaining the tradition of brain-teasing verbal panache and shock-of-the-new funk we once snootily considered the sole province of us uppity upsouth cosmopolite muhfuhs. They also proved you could keep it thoughtful and pimpstrollful, goofball and gangsta, conspiracy-theoried and crunk. Being Dirty Southern means never having to say you’re sorry for Master P or The Matrix Reloaded.
No, we ain’t about to get it twisted. We know that in the rhyme-soloist MC gladiator arena New York, home of J-hova, Nas, L.L., and DMX, 50 Cent still rules the roost. But if you the kind that needs that good old P-Funk freaknigga headcharge in your modern-day life, OutKast has been your hiphop band for more than a minute. I’m talking about BASS. And Brides of Funkenstein girlchorus moments. And those Blackbyrd McKnight-style guitar fusillades tearing through “Bombs Over Baghdad.” And all those insouciantly inscrutable bootysnatching lyrics to go. Not to mention hiphop’s only rockstar, our best-dressed clown prince of phools, Andre 3000, as much a vision to behold as a voice to be heard. Role play becomes him. Inside the new album you’ll find flicks of him seminude, Dionysian centaur dude surrounded by a bevy of browngirl space angels in an astrological space-time continuum. Worth the price of the ticket if you already think Andre’s a god.
If you worship at other altars, know that Mr. 3000 talks more than he rhymes on The Love Below and sings profusely about Love. About Cupid and Valentine’s Day and “Dracula’s Wedding Day” and “Love Hater” and “Love in War” and our romantic hero’s love for ladies, lap dancers, unicorns, and prototypes. There’s lotsa love and nostalgia in the music too: a drunken Art Ensemble of Chicago swing thing here, an Earth Wind and Fire torchsong there, a punk rockabilly stomp, the ever Princely combo of swooping symphony and gooseneck woodblock beats, and an instrumental jungle variation on Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” up in here. One sexy, smart, stylish, tuneful, and above all silly record for starters—Andre Benjamin 3000 in a nutshell, in excelsis, in spades. Cutting to the chase: If the very thought of Andre or Gilbert and Sullivan doesn’t make you smile, The Love Below might not be your cup of topsy-turvy ambrosia, bojangles, and laughing gas. It’s a concept album and there’s supposed to be a movie version next year. Yay.
In any other group Speakerboxx would be the box Andre decided to start thinking outside of. But there’s plenty room in Big Boi’s house for the Andre Benjamins of this world as well as Ludicris, Jay-Z, Big Gipp, Killer Mike, Cee-Lo, Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, and Slimm Calhouns. You could hear the Big Boi disc as providing coverage for Dre the ATLien’s spacecase act of fey bravery in the unfrilly world of Southern rap. But Mr. Boi more than expoobidently holds it down for all those OutKast fanatics not quite ready to join Mr. 3000 in the elysian fields of romance in psychedelic Tin Pan Alley, and proves himself no slouch with the freakness either. And Dre, still by his brother’s side contrary to band-breaking-up-yo theory, produces and rhymes on the 120-bpm Eurodisco-turns-swooning-Patti Labelle sampling track that is Speakerboxx‘s first cut and graces three more before album’s end.
Where Dre twists Prince remnants to his own astroboyish amorous ends, Big Boi holds up OutKast’s P-Funk revival tent. “Bowtie” is very Gloryhallastoopid, “The Rooster” could find a home on Motor-Booty Affair, the crunkadelic Killer Mike cameo “Bust” is some Standing on the Verge for your shelf ass while Trombipulation could have used the fetching “Church.” No copycatting here, though. George Clinton and company’s best ideas, especially the harmonic ones, have been needing a change of venue. They’ve been barely touched let alone exhausted by G-funk. And never fear: Big Boi also maintains Uncle Jam and the OutKast of yesteryear’s ghettocentric take on world politrix. Suckas will bounce.
Chuck Eddy’s Licks Column: Atlanta Crunk From Youngbloodz, Ying Yang Twins, and Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz