'Kast Away

André's simply singing; Big Boi blows your brain into outer space

Outkast
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Arista

As if to encourage the use of Record Review Prescript #27 (90 Percent of Double Albums Are One Album Too Long), roughly half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Outkast's divided double CD/quadruple LP, is not worth a fourth listen. (The other half might last a lifetime, so get the album anyway!) The surprising thing is that most of the chaff comes from the disc commandeered by André 3000, the group's alleged visionary, while Big Boi's portion, though marred by some posse-cut longueurs, sustains a far-from-prosaic excellence through most of its old-school variety show.

Let's start with Mr. 3000. "Tonight we'll make the prettiest song that no one will ever hear," warbles André on one of The Love Below's lowlights. That sounds like something an indie rocker would say, which probably isn't coincidental given how much the album's choose-your-superlative single "Hey Ya!" recalls the Pixies. Of course, lots of "no ones" will hear these pretty songs, which I guess makes their strangeness vaguely heroic. It's hard not to cheer whenever a hugely popular artist makes music this potentially unpopular, and judging from the customer reviews on Amazon.com, some hip-hop reactionaries are gunning to excommunicate André for several heresies, including excessive Prince imitations, a Norah Jones duet, and a stubborn (perverse?) refusal to do much rapping.

Those who are wondering where André's rap skills went might search for them in that Afro: Outkast's André 3000 (right) and Big Boi
Ben Clark
Those who are wondering where André's rap skills went might search for them in that Afro: Outkast's André 3000 (right) and Big Boi

Perhaps purists will be placated by the outro to "Roses," which also features Big Boi and seems designed to prove that despite André's disregard for hip-hop convention, the group nonetheless stands united against stupid-ass, gold-digging bitches. The tributes to "real ladies," alas, aren't much more enlightened, but that's not the album's biggest problem. Eccentricity isn't synonymous with either innovation or quality, and much of Dré's studio tinkerings, while endearingly idiosyncratic, all too often score high marks on the Suck-o-Meter. The jokey swing number and the breakbeat update of Coltrane's take on "My Favorite Things" are especially silly and unimaginative genre mash-ups. The Love Below offers a few mix-tape delights, but it feels like the work of a great specialist who, at least at present, doesn't have the chops for his Renaissance man ambitions.

For one, he's mostly singing, which is a problem. His Hendrix and Prince simulations are okay, and I rather like his bush-league Philip Bailey on the filthy "Spread." But on tracks such as "She's Alive," his tarnished falsetto sounds more like a castrato with the flu. And for a lyricist whose raps tend to be so dense (as in complex), his pop-song doggerel is mainly dense (as in dumb). Funny catch phrases abound (I hope to use "Shake it like a Polaroid picture" someday), but they're outstripped by angular hackwork ("Miss lady, you could have been born a little bit later, but I don't care/So what if your hair sports a couple of gray hairs"--two "hairs" in one line!).

Despite André's reputation as the group's aesthete, it's the putatively thuggish Big Boi who delivers the double album's prettiest number with Speakerboxxx's exquisitely harmonized "Unhappy." The following cut, "Bowtie," is even better--an adaptation of the P. Funk aesthetic that's so comprehensive, it makes Dr. Dre's Clintonian tributes seem superficial. Plus, Big Boi's political commentaries are specific--he knocks Bush and sympathizes with Daniel Pearl's widow--while André just coughs up bumper stickers. "Make Love, Not War," predictably, is one of his favorites, but here's mine: Big Boi in '04.

 
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