Speakerboxxx/The Love Below might’ve been the biggest consensus album of the decade. It sold ten million copies, or rather it sold five million copies, and that number Soundscanned as ten million because it was a double album (whatever, that’s still a lot). It won the Pazz & Jop albums poll, and “Hey Ya” won the singles poll. Jay-Z gave interviews where he said that he wasn’t even listening to rap, that he was fucking with The Love Below and nothing else. Every shitty indie band in the universe covered “Hey Ya.” In recent memory, there hasn’t been a single album that’s even come close to the combination of commercial and critical love that OutKast achieved with this thing. Everyone loved it. I hated it.
Or rather, I sort of liked Speakerboxxx, a rambling and unfocused but still pretty good Southern rap album. But other than “Dracula’s Wedding” and that bonus song at the end where Andre rapped, I thought The Love Below was an overindulgent and unlistenable mess, the sort of thing that gives artistic experimentation a bad name. Andre Benjamin’s basically has the same ideas about ambition as Mike Patton or Les Claypool or Ween; he writes halfassed, formless songs jammed with obnoxious vocal tics and cartoony organ bloops and the sort of half-baked conceptual boners that you’d expect from some dumbshit college freshman who switched his major from pre-med to music theory last week (“My Favorite Things” as drum & bass, guh). As for “Hey Ya,” I would dearly love to use the Men in Black memory-eraser on the entire planet and make everyone forget that it ever existed just so I’d never have to see it on a best-singles-ever list again. Andre used to be one of my favorite rappers, and the first three OutKast albums were all breathtaking pieces of work that pushed the boundaries of Southern rap outward without leaving its swampy bump behind. I didn’t like the Princified synth-gloop that dominated the second half of Stankonia, but the album still had some amazing moments. So The Love Below wasn’t just a piece of shit; it was a tragic Icarus swan-dive. So it would be a massive understatement to say that I went into last night’s Idlewild listening party with mixed feelings. I’d love nothing more than to see OutKast turn into an honest-to-god rap group again, and there was some chance the group could redeem himself by coming back together on this thing. I wasn’t expecting any miracles, but “The Mighty O,” the first song that leaked, was a surprisingly solid back-and-forth despite the annoying Cab Calloway jack on the hook. Now: I know my position on The Love Below is the minority opinion. To most of the critical establishment, it was a groundbreaking work of genius. If you loved The Love Below, you should probably take my opinion on Idlewild with a huge grain of salt, especially considering that I only heard the album once. But here it is: Idlewild is a terrible album.
It’s still not a proper OutKast album; Andre and Big Boi only come together to rap on two tracks, both of which have already leaked. It’s basically a sequel to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, except that now the solo tracks are on the same disc, and they’re sequenced so they’re all jumbled up next to each other. It’s clear from the opening skit, where Andre brings back his fucking irritating fake British accent, that we’re in for another pretentious mess. But it’s even worse now, since Andre’s wannabe Prince nonsense has bled over to most of Big Boi’s solo tracks. Big Boi still manages to come up with the occasional great moment; he still has that great overenunciated speed-rap flow, and he gets gorgeous, summery vocal hooks out of Sleepy Brown and Scar. “The Train,” one of the recently-leaked tracks, has a breezy horn riff that reminds me of Earth Wind & Fire; I sort of love it. But more often, his tracks are messy, unstructured blurts like the single “Morris Brown,” and Big Boi himself sounds awkward and out of place. There wasn’t a whole lot of information given at the listening session, so I don’t know whether Andre produced the Big Boi tracks, but it sure sounds like he did. I much preferred last year’s underrated Got Purp?, Vol. 2, Big Boi’s label sampler. That album was full of crisp, airy electro and bright, joyous R&B. It was a pop album, not an experimental opus, and Big Boi always sounds a lot more comfortable when he’s giving his public utilitarian trunk-rattlers than when he’s getting weird and trying to keep up with Andre.
As for Andre’s parts, they’re worse than I could’ve ever imagined. He’s really gone off the deep end, ditching anything resembling coherence. He doesn’t embarrass himself on those rare occasions when he deigns to rap, but he’s much more interested in singing in that unbelievably annoying pinched falsetto. “Idlewild Blue (Don’tchu Worry Bout Me)” is an acoustic blues song with big, chunky drums and trite, self-impressed ad-libs (“Y’all know about the blues, right?”). “Chronomentophobia” is a breathy falsetto sketch about, apparently, “the fear of cults, the fear of time.” “Life is Like a Musical” is all Herb Alpert tiki-drums and Stereolab synths, and it’s one of several songs that Andre sings lounge-style. “Makes No Sense At All” completely justifies its title; it’s Andre’s stab at jazz, with walking bass and tinkling pianos and gibberish lyrics that I guess are supposed to have something to do with scatting. “Greatest Show on Earth” is Andre’s duet with, seriously, Macy Gray; it’s a piece of all-over-the-place jazzhands big-band, and it fails completely. Christina Aguilera also has a few big-band songs on her new album, and it’s also annoying when she tries it, but she at least makes some attempt at translating it into a pop context. Andre is content to build his own little playground and fart around in it, never so much as offering a hook for the rest of us to latch onto. And “A Bad Note,” the album’s last song, is a squiggley instrumental guitar solo that goes on for damn near forever; by the time it was half over, everyone in the room was losing patience and talking over it.
It’s not a critic’s place to talk about an album’s commercial prospects, but there has to be a reason Jive is leaking tracks like crazy this week. It’s like the label realizes that there’s no “Hey Ya” on here, that the album doesn’t stand much of a chance without one, and it’s throwing everything against the wall to see if anything sticks. It doesn’t much matter to me whether the album does well or not; I’ve listened to it once, and I don’t intend to put myself through that ever again.
Maybe the movie will be good. I don’t know. It’s possible.