Hip-hop's odd couple gets odder

OutKast's new double album is a critic's dream -- a self-indulgent but thrilling mixture of Southern funk, indie rock and art music.

Published September 24, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Dynamic duos delight us by virtue of contrast: One might be staid and the other brash; one large, the other lean; one high-pitched, the other baritone. Think Batman and Robin, Abbott and Costello, Bert and Ernie.

That's also the winning formula behind famous rap pairings, from Chuck D and Flava Flav (of Public Enemy) to N.W.A.'s Ice Cube and Eazy-E. In style and intonation, one is a little more out there than the other. One might wear the pants, so to speak, while the other wears, well, a skirt -- or a psychedelic top, neon green smock and daisies.

OK, so this last description applies to only one rap duo: OutKast's Andre 3000 and Big Boi (né Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton). Two albums into their career, Andre launched his own sartorial revolution, adding a numerical value to his name and sporting outfits that -- especially on his lanky, lean frame -- might alternately be deemed eccentric or extraterrestrial. Big Boi remained content with Phat Farm sweat suits.

Andre's gimmick was superfluous; OutKast's music was enough to attract attention. Hailing from down south -- East Point in Atlanta, to be exact -- the pair met in high school. But unlike many big-name Southern hip-hop acts, from Master P to Lil' John to Baby, OutKast, which released its debut "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" in 1994, made more than booty-shaking anthems that "crunk it up" (as they say down there). OutKast were a slightly more highbrow South. Sampling jazz or funk and experimenting with rhyme and flow, they had that rare ability to take chicken and grits -- which they weren't above referencing -- to a whole new level. They made music that was smart, funky and original -- yet eminently danceable. A track like "Rosa Parks," from their breakthrough 1998 album "Aquemini," may feature a chorus like "everybody move to the back of the bus," but it's still a club favorite.

Their new release, "The Love Below/Speakerboxxx," is likely to make music critics salivate. First, it's a double CD (and therefore provides plenty of critical fodder). Second, it's a post-Grammy effort, which intensifies both audience and artist expectations (OutKast earned two Grammys in 2002 for the album "Stankonia," and one in 2003 for their single "The Whole World"). Third, it's a product of something that generally proves either heaven- or hell-sent: artistic evolution. After four albums and a greatest-hits compilation, Andre and Big Boi found themselves growing apart musically and working at different paces. Instead of splitting up, they elected -- with the full blessing of Arista Records CEO Antonio "LA" Reid, who has long given them creative carte blanche -- to record individual efforts and release the results on one OutKast album. The album has been touted as a genre-bending, über-original endeavor, yet another reason it's a reviewer's dream: Name the critic who doesn't delight in penning descriptions like, "rock-hip-hop-funk fusion with a jazzy feel."

Such a description applies to many tracks on "The Love Below/Speakerboxxx" -- even to tracks on the more traditional OutKast-esque half of the album, Big Boi's "Speakerboxxx." Its first single, "The Way You Move," brilliantly merges blaring horns and harmonies with Big Boi's rapid-yet-smooth signature flow (the speed of Busta Rhymes meets the laid-back drawl of Snoop Dogg). "Ghetto Musick" has something of a Dr. Dre feel to it (a touch of '80s synth does the trick), and "Flip Flop Rock" is an energized pairing of three rappers with vastly different styles: Big Boi, newcomer Killer Mike and Jay-Z (who hits a lyrical low on this one; his contribution is merely to say that he's great and he likes Outkast). "Last Call," featuring Lil' John and the Eastside Boys, proves that Outkast can do the dirty Southern thang when they so choose.

Andre, however, isn't doing that. In fact, he's not doing much rapping at all. "The Love Below" puts him at the forefront of two hip-hop trends: rap figures who dabble in falsetto, retro-soul singing (think Pharell and even Snoop, on a track for his latest album), and rappers who say they're done with rapping (DMX and Jay-Z, for instance, are soon to release "retirement" albums). Andre -- who is currently acting in both an HBO production and a film by Albert and Allen Hughes about Jimi Hendrix -- goes out on a musical limb here, playing guitar and keyboard and recording what are often soft-spoken chants. The result is not mere song but musical composition: "Dracula's Wedding," which nicely approximates a Gothic sound and is reminiscent of a Broadway number, or "Pink & Blue," which would make a compelling film score.

There are some enormously creative moments on "The Love Below": a drum 'n' bass version of "My Favorite Things," or indie-rock guitar on "Hey Ya!" Andre's musical tactic is summed up by the stylized photos of him in the album sleeve, which evoke Doris Day/Rock Hudson flicks. As with watching recent '50s-nostalgia films ("Down With Love" and "Far From Heaven"), listening to "The Love Below" leaves us a tad confused about the line between tongue-in-cheek and sincere. Whenever Andre gets too musically highbrow, too artsy for a pop audience, he seems to interject a silly sigh or a goofy lyric (i.e., "she don't even have to have a big old ass/ just something well proportioned to her body") -- thus reminding us about those grains of salt we ought to take him with.

Andre is right to temper the high art here, because if "Speakerboxxx" is solid but ultimately decent, "The Love Below" often bears the mark of an artist who's been trapped in the studio too long. Like an ivory-tower academic, Andre occasionally forgets that an audience hopes to understand what he's getting at. OutKast gets an A for creative effort, but there's a tad too much self-indulgence behind such Andre renditions as "Roses," "Vibrate" and "She's Alive." Even the first single, "She Lives in My Lap" -- which has actress Rosario Dawson intoning a few lines (I'm not sure this justifies the label "featuring Rosario Dawson," as the album puts it) -- becomes mildly irritating in the context of the many other album tracks in a similar vein.

As Lauryn Hill's sophomore bomb made tragically clear, musical growth sometimes works best when it's reined in. The ideal sound for a newly evolved Andre might be "Take Off Your Cool," in which he's paired with Norah Jones and acoustic guitar. The song is short, sweet and delightfully original. It leaves us with a taste of something new and nice, not an overcooked, filled-to-the-brim tub of it.

By Baz Dreisinger

Dr. Baz Dreisinger is a professor at John Jay College, the author of "Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World," the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline movement, and the Executive Director of the Incarceration Nations Network.

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