Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Arista

Music Reviews Outkast
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Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

At a time when mainstream hip-hop has had relatively little to offer, the members of Outkast have consistently been the genre’s most creative artists. Following their muse, André Benjamin (André 3000) and Antwan Patton (Big Boi) have kept evolving and kept it fresh. The duo began with the southern-fried hip hop of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994) and followed with the wacky, cartoonish psychedelibopalicious space-hop of ATLiens (1996). They incorporated elements of blues, jazz and soul into Aquemini (1998), on which Dré and Big Boi explored the player/poet dichotomy. Then, Outkast made the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning Stankonia (2000)—with its infectious hooks and electronic/dancehall influences, one of the most accessible rap/hip-hop records ever.

On the duo’s latest, each member explores his own musical vision independently, one disc apiece. Rumors of the group’s impending split-up—over creative differences and Dré’s newfound interest in acting—were buzzing for awhile, but Big Boi puts everything to rest with his new single, “The Way You Move” (Outkast is everlastin’ / Not clashin’, not at all).

That addressed, Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx keeps pushing ahead, but at a pace similar to the group’s first few albums. The overall sound is funky, soulful hip-hop with a serious edge. As usual, Big Boi uses his unparalleled high-speed rapping chops to set new standards for verbal velocity (try reading along with the lyrics—it’s virtually impossible). After a brief intro, the disc leads off with, “GhettoMusick,” a fast-paced number fueled by a hard nu-school breakbeat-influenced drum track. The hook, however, is pure Sly & The Family Stone. “Unhappy” is an ambient ballad reminiscent of Aquemini’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1),” though the beat’s slower and choppier. Big Boi’s little boy, Bamboo, makes his hilarious debut on “Bamboo (Interlude) and the Gospel soul-funk of “Church” finds his dad asking some tough questions about the mystery of life. With its chunky, super-funky wah-wah guitar, catchy piano line and thick, tension-building horn accompaniment, “The Rooster” is all Kool & The Gang. But even when you hear influences come through, Dré and Big Boi have assimilated them so effectively that whatever well they draw from, the bucket—by the time it gets to the top—is brimming with pure, unfiltered Outkast.

Like Bob Dylan, some of Outkast’s best lyrics are nonsensical lines used simply to evoke a strangely affecting image or because they sound cool rolling off the tongue. But also like Dylan, Outkast can get political, which is exemplified best by “War,” a call to awareness and a diatribe on the state of American foreign policy. Big Boi raps, “Come young, come blind / Unwind, confined to the situation we facin,’ ’ cause it’s time / Tic, Tic, Boom! ... Come here and smell the Folgers, the soldiers / The human beings, man acting as if he was the Supreme Being / Clocking the souls of men out like he was God … The hollow hearts battle for dollars / Politicians, modern day magicians, physicians of death”

If Speakerboxxx is a logical progression in the Outkast evolution, Dré’s The Love Below is an alien asteroid crashlanding unannounced into your stereo. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I dropped the wrong disc in the player, what with the Percy Faith-style orchestra and delicate piano that smack of Sinatra and “Theme From a Summer Place.” Is this really André 3000? Yes. It is. And he’s standing fearless, rolling the creative dice. The Love Below is—without a doubt—the biggest gamble a major hip-hop artist has ever taken. Dré’s gotten as whimsical as an Elephant 6 band, but the quirkiness—like this unclassifiable record—works for him more often than not. He’s also been taking music lessons. In addition to showing off his vocal versatility like never before, he plays guitar, keyboard and tenor sax on The Love Below.

The album’s rampant eclecticism and anything-goes attitude is its greatest asset. There’s wailing Hendrix and Spanish-flavored nylon-string guitar, Grant Green-esque jazz vamping, Delfonics-meets-late-’70s-Zappa style ballads, a drum’n’bass fusion-jazz take on Coltrane, ’80s pop-hop a la Tom Tom Club, futuristic R&B and a heaping-helping of freaky sexual honesty—sometimes reminiscent of Prince and Rick James, but often more thoughtful. However, the not-so-subtle “Spread” is hard to take seriously (reminds me of Blow Fly, the 2Live Crew of late’70’s disco) but it probably wasn’t meant to be. Preceded by a screeching Pharaoh Sanders-style horn break, the All New New Wave rave-up “Hey Ya” might be this year’s catchiest single, reminiscent of early Talking Heads with a keyboard mega-hook that could be The Cure. “Take Off Your Cool,” an acoustic duet between Dré and Norah Jones is beautifully written and the autobiographical closing track, “A Life in the Day of André Benjamin (Incomplete)” is pure poetry.

Just as Outkast’s music has turned so many people on to hip hop, Speakerboxxx / The Love Below—especially Dré’s material—will likely open up hip-hop fans to a vastly diverse musical world they otherwise might never have discovered.