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When Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa laughs his exceptionally big, gregarious laugh and answers my question, it’s like he’s pulling some kind of long con. Not because he hasn’t given me a perfectly good answer. He has. But because his answer to the question “How does one achieve hip-hop longevity?” is the exact same one Big Boi of OutKast had given me a few hours earlier.
Big Boi, 1:15 p.m.
“You gotta always consider yourself a student. Even though you might have mastered certain things, you gotta always be a student to it. And, I mean, I’m always trying to learn new things.”
Masta Killa, 4ish p.m.
“The true understanding a master reaches is that he’s always a student. See, life is the ultimate teacher. So even though you’re the master of your destiny, you have to remain open to new things, because that’s the only way you learn.”
Be humble, basically. Or, in Big Boi’s Southern, to-the-point parlance, “Don’t ever get to a place where you can’t be told nothin’.”
Both Masta Killa and Big Boi have been in the rap’s public realm for 20 years now, a phenomenon as rare as an atheist in a foxhole or a depressed Trader Joe’s cashier. Rap artists either burn out (DMX, Bone Thugs), fade away (Biggie, Tupac, Eazy-E), find Jesus (Ma$e, Hammer), find Hollywood (RZA, Andre 3000, Ice Cube), or become sick parodies of themselves (I’ll let you fill this one out). And while their answers on some common topics are the same, both longtime artists have new albums that are wildly different. Masta Killa’s is Selling My Soul (Nature Sounds); Big Boi’s is the no-less-ominous sounding Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (Def Jam). Different, yes, but they’re both incredibly good. And both make the same statement in similar words: We’re here because we’re know what the fuck we’re doing.
On Selling, Masta Killa leans back on the Wu-Tang sound of yore: soaring samples of old-school soul and stuttering, slow-tempo beats and production by longtime Wu associate 9th Wonder, plus kung fu samples, the whole bit. On “Dirty Soul,” the album’s last track, he outright lifts old Wu-Tang lyrics—Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Hippa to Da Hoppa”—in salute to his fallen comrade.
“I heard the beat, and the first person that I thought of was Ol’ Dirty,” says Masta of the song. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is the kind of beat'”—a rolling bassline over a thick, filthy organ—”‘Dirty would love right here.’ It’s such a soulful beat he would’ve loved it. It felt right to rap his words over it, and give tribute.”
Masta keeps Selling mostly in third gear, seldom amping up the BPM to anything that will quicken the pulse. This is music to smoke blunts and lounge to. Fitting, considering he is doing exactly that on the album’s cover. “I listen to a lot of old music,” says Masta, adding that he spent a lot of time before the album cruising the city listening to old pre-disco Bee Gees. “And a lot of it has a laid-back feel, which inspired me.”
Selling harkens back to what’s old, but according to Masta, that’s what makes it new again. “A lot of people haven’t heard this classic Wu sound in a long time,” he says. “And, matter of fact, because RZA didn’t do any of the beats, and the title’s Selling My Soul, that’s all being perceived as I’ve deviated from the classical sound that everyone once loved. It’s going to surprise people.”
About that title: Does it foreshadow what it takes to stay in the hip-hop game for 20 years?
“Well,” laughs Masta Killa, “most of the time when you hear that phrase, ‘selling my soul,’ it’s perceived as a negative. But in actuality, when you think about the soul, the essence of one’s self—when you’re being creative and being productive from the inner self—that is a part of the soul, brother. You can feel it in your soul. You’re selling your soul.”
Vicious, on the other hand, leans forward. Way forward. Pop hooks abound all over its 15 tracks, and the album features many guests, both expected (T.I., Ludacris) and not (Phantogram, Wavves). “The music has to evoke a certain type of emotion that’ll make you feel a certain type of way,” says Big Boi about the album. “That’s when I know I’m done—when I feel a certain type of energy.”
“With every album, even from OutKast albums up until now, it’s always been about evolution in all ways,” he adds. “Trying to just find new sounds. You never wanna re-create something you’ve already done. When you’re searching for new sounds and new things, you try new things. I like to always say the music is organic, we create it—never genetically modified.”
“After 20 years of records and songs in the catalog, it’s important to stay excited,” says Big Boi. “Me as an artist and a producer, too, I try to create something that you’ve never heard before. Something I’ve never heard before.”
Following along that “something you’ve never heard before” vibe, certainly, are three songs (“Lines,” “CPU,” “Objectum Sexuality”) produced by or featuring slinky pop-duo Phantogram. On “Shoes for Running,” Big teams up with the gauzy Nathan Williams of Wavves. All the tracks are outliers on a hip-hop album, injecting a new wave touch that definitely lives up to Big’s lofty billing.
Masta Killa lays in the old-school cut. Big Boi is never happy in familiar surroundings. Both are students, speaking different languages, but getting the message across.