Genius is a word tossed about a little too freely nowadays, and context is everything: What exactly does it mean to be a genius in an age of mediocrity? OutKast’s new Speakerboxxx/The Love Below arrived in stores on a tsunami of media hype, desperation-tinged good will and gushy declarations that it was a work of “genius.” The double-CD set, packaging together solo discs by the group’s Big Boi and Andre 3000, was tagged “album of the year” by music-biz buzz, which is as organic as potted meat and here had more to do with the industry’s need for a commercial blockbuster (that ideally would carry a whiff of artistic integrity) than with any true assessment of the music.
So, does the duo live up to the hype? Yes, most definitely. And no. Big Boi and Andre 3000 would have had to deliver a soundtrack of burps and farts in order to fumble the accolades that were polished and waiting before their discs were even pressed, and even then they’d still get props for their daring. What they’ve done is, on Big Boi’s entry, simply polish up the patented Southern-fried, funk-based experimentalism they’ve defined and refined, while Andre lets slip that he’s been sitting under a cherry moon and traipsing over graffiti bridges in pursuit of an everyday-people kind of woman he can thank falettin’ him be himself.
Big Boi’s work is the more conventional of the pair’s, which neatly plays into his accepted portrait as the team’s conscious playa, the homeboy with the dope, crunked flow and just slightly left-of-center worldview. He flosses sports jerseys and baggy shorts, is almost always flocked in press photos by scantily clad women, and has a stripper pole built right in at his domicile. But he also takes the art of rap — hip-hop’s mandate to break established rules and push boundaries — very seriously. For every lascivious line he unfurls, he drops a rhyme whose wordplay, if not content, bespeaks a thoughtfulness and deep engagement with the world around him that eludes many of his contemporaries. All of which is still true on Speakerboxxx.
After the obligatory intro/overture track, the collection officially kicks off with the electro-frenzy of “Ghetto Musick,” whose title alone is an indictment of the state of hip-hop. Featuring an appearance by Dre (who shows up on four tracks), the track is a giddy showing-off of mad-professor skills — the galloping BPM, the Patti LaBelle hook lifted from her hit ballad “Love, Need and Want You” that slams an abrupt mood/tempo change before hitting the ground running again. (It’s the second time in less than a month that the formidable LaBelle has been reduced to a hook-bitch on a blockbuster rap release, the first being her appearance on DMX’s “Thank You” from his CD Grand Champ.)
From that point on, the self-consciousness dissipates and the album simply soars: “Church” pays homage to George Clinton with a sanctified gospel breakdown; the melancholic vibe of “Unhappy” snakes around philosophical musings on the
nature of joy and sadness, and finely detailed ruminations on childhood and its heartbreaks; the first single, “The Way You Move,” is pure sex, from Sleepy Brown’s Marvin Gaye homage on the hook to the way Big Boi drawls, “But I know ya’ll wanted that 808.” And on an album featuring cameos by Dre, Killer Mike, Jazze Pha, Konkrete, Big Gipp, Ludacris, Khujo Goodie, Cee-Lo, Slimm Calhoun, Lil’ Jon and Jay-Z, it’s Bamboo — Big Boi’s toddler son — who steals the show with his half-mumbled, half-sung rendition of OutKast’s hit “The Whole World.”
“Everybody needs a glass of water to chase the hate away/And everybody needs somebody to love before it’s too late/Everybody needs somebody to rub their shoulders and scratch their dandruff/And everybody need to stop actin’ hard and shit/Before you get your ass whooped (I’ll slap the fuck out ya . . .),” croons Andre 3000 on “Love Hater.” Everyone talks about The Love Below as a concept album centered on a one-night stand and the existential crisis said encounter sparks as Dre (singing more than rapping) ponders love, the lengths to which men go to find and deny their need for it, and the consequences of the self-inflicted duplicity. What you haven’t heard mentioned is how funny the album is. That humor, in the songs and in the skits that separate them, underscores the deep sense of sadness and searching that permeates the disc. The highlights are many: “Happy Valentine’s Day”; the unabashed fuck-anthem “Spread”; the wistful “Prototype”; “She Lives in My Lap,” which features multiculti jack-off fantasy Rosario Dawson cooing seductively. And the first single, “Hey Ya!,” sounds like what you’d get if some early-’60s rock band was produced by early-’80s Minneapolis Negro new waver Jamie Starr. (The song contains the irresistible command “Shake it like a Polaroid picture,” but second place for best line goes to the Little Richard–esque “Lend me some sugar!/I am your neighbor!”) It’s also worth noting that “Hey Ya!” has broken the notoriously rigid color barrier at L.A.’s KROQ, where it’s a surprise heavy-rotation hit.
The problem with Love Below is that its hyperotherness is a tad too studied. The self-consciousness of persona and other people’s perceptions of it that Big Boi discards early on in his disc fairly permeates Dre’s. His positioning of himself in the lineage of Hendrix, Sly Stone, Prince and Coltrane (the last on an admittedly fly drum & bass instrumental of “My Favorite Things”) is labored; his Negro psychedelia is refreshing in the context of contemporary R&B and rap that have been hijacked by, well, the reigning bullshit, yet it’s still a little too familiar; it’s a formula, a cliché in its own right.
Still, Dre taps into some real, age-old tension around the issue of Negro (male) authenticity and the ache of not really belonging anywhere. The wobbly Sammy Davis Jr./Nat King Cole–wannabe crooning he employs on the CD intro is ostensibly asking where true love can be found (“Some say Atlanta, some say New York, some say Paris, France, but who knows where this flower grows?”); the flower in question, however, is also his black self. The faux-Brit accent he employs on the skit “Good Day, Good Sir” (featuring Puff Daddy’s manservant, Bentley Farnsworth) evokes the late Marvin Gaye, who in the ’70s was mocked by many of his peers when, after living in England for a hot minute, he returned to the States sporting an exaggerated English inflection. But as pretentious as the accent was, it was also poignant, bespeaking the gnaw that has resided inside even the most acclaimed black geniuses. The irony of aping the colonialists in the search for personal freedom is, of course, too rich for words.
To understand why Dre’s Brit affectation registers on a deep, racialized level, you need look no further than the current controversy surrounding political rappers Dead Prez, who were recently arrested in New York while in the middle of a photo shoot. Their refusal to produce ID when confronted by police resulted in their arrest on transparently bogus charges. (The cases have been dismissed against three of the four people arrested; tellingly, the white photographer snapping the photos was neither asked for ID nor arrested.) Listening to the group’s new album, Get Free or Die Tryin’, is to embark on a journey of pointedly race-based wariness, weariness and anger — as well as the flaming impulses of resistance. Musically, they’ve altered the formula significantly from their 2000 debut, Let’s Get Free. This time, they employ beats and stylistic flourishes that wouldn’t be out of place on a DMX album (“Fuck the Law”) or a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony joint (“Paper, Paper”); the autobiographical “Coming of Age” rests on a bed of feathery funk. These tweaked aesthetics provide textures and accessibility meant to help the duo reach beyond their cult of the already converted. The crippling flaw with their debut was that, while their rhymes were tight and full of fire, they contained little poetry. Ironically, just as the group’s artistry is getting more dynamic, their reality reminds you of a persistent fact: Sometimes America just beats the poetry right out of you.
OUTKAST | Speakerboxxx /The Love Below | (Arista)
DEAD PREZ | Get Free or Die Tryin’ | (Landspeed)