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The Great Divide

OutKast: Speakerboxxx

LaFace /Arista, 2003

Rating: 4.1


By Laurence Station




OutKast: The Love Below

LaFace /Arista, 2003

Rating: 3.5


By Kevin Forest Moreau

Overall Rating: 3.8      
Posted: September 26, 2003      
Where The Love Below finds Andre 3000 going it primarily alone, following his Prince/George Clinton/Beatlesesque-psychedelic love-jones to its logically illogical conclusion, Speakerboxxx finds Big Boi, the more earthbound of the OutKast braintrust, sticking with tried-and-true hip-hop formula: The all-star cast of rappers overwhelming whatever deficiencies one single rapper might possess. Big Boi certainly doesn't lack the skills or confidence to go it solo, but one can't overlook the talented heavyweights bolstering his rapid, rough-hewn rhymes. From household names Jay-Z and Ludacris to up-and-coming rhyme-slingers Killer Mike and Mello, Speakerboxxx overflows with a wildly diverse cast of vocal stylists (and sharp, imaginatively inventive beats).

When this smorgasbord of flavors works (and it certainly hits more often than it misses), Speakerboxxx is as exciting and expressive as any album released this year. The hyperactive, wildly schizophrenic "GhettoMusick" sets the tone early, from the volatile torrent of Big Boi's machine-gun delivery to the tension-balancing sample of Patti LaBelle's "Love, Need & Want You." It's to Speakerboxxx what "Gasoline Dreams" was to Stankonia -- a potent, infectiously hook-laden opening shot. Equally impressive is the Gangsta Mack tribute "Bowtie," utilizing an appropriately big-noise brass section and Sleepy Brown's smooth flow. "War" allows Big Boi to get off his dance floor platforms and onto a soapbox as he criticizes everything from the post-9/11 loss of freedoms to the contested 2000 Presidential election. In the midst of so many songs about getting one's groove on and the importance of looking good in the 'hood, Big Boi promises to "always bring food for thought to the table." And instead of coming off as preachy or self-important, his stab at politically charged commentary blends into the overall mix refreshingly well.

Speakerboxxx flounders when it overplays the trite macho posturing angle ("Tomb of the Boom") or indulges in pointless nepotism ("Bamboo (Interlude)" -- wherein Big Boi's young son gets his shot at hamming it up for the mic). But the overall freshness and consistency of the heavy bass and horn-backed sound ties the nineteen selections together nicely, and at just under an hour, it never feels top heavy or padded with filler, as so many rap albums regrettably do.

Big Boi cranks his Speakerboxxx up in the same East Point neighborhoods that inspired back-to-back masterpieces Aquemini and Stankonia. And while it may lack the unpredictable P-funk edge Andre 3000 brought to the table on those efforts, in keeping it real and paying its debt to hip hop culture, Speakerboxxx stacks up as a worthy addition to the impressive OutKast catalogue.

  There's a school of thought that attributes the success of the Beatles solely to the contributions of John Lennon. Paul McCartney, adherents of this school insist, was the sappy, "boring" (read: traditional) Beatle; only Lennon's more flamboyant and gritty edges, they say, saved the duo's collaborations from well-executed mediocrity. It's instructive to bear this argument in mind when digesting The Love Below, unquestionably the more aggressive and adventurous half of OutKast's double-solo-album tandem. Because like much of Lennon's solo work, The Love Below finds Andre in sore need of an editor to exert some discipline over his rampant, attention-starved Id, and makes a strong case for just why the revered Atlanta pair is much stronger than the sum of its individual parts.

It's tempting to compare Andre's work here (as many critics have done) to Prince, whose yin-yang duality of sexual aggression and emotional yearning is indeed strongly echoed here. Prince, however, built a legacy not just on cult of personality but on songwriting, a skill set in which Andre proves sorely lacking. The Love Below's liquid, freeform vibe takes its structural cues from past OutKast records, where the loose grooves that permeate hip-hop held more sway. But the rambling sprawl of "Happy Valentine's Day," "Prototype" and "Behold a Lady" suggest a performer perhaps a bit too caught up in his creative urges, unable or unwilling to apply the elbow grease to expand the tracks beyond repetitive showcases for his inventive freakout aesthetic. The 1% inspiration is definitely present: the 99% perspiration... well, that's not so evident.

Not that there aren't moments where Andre's hyperactive muse scores big. Lead-off single "Hey Ya!" is a tight, insistent blast of summertime radio frolic; the lounge-ballad pastiche "Take Off Your Cool" (a debut with Norah Jones) is an effective exercise in genre immersion; and a spirited instrumental version of "My Favorite Things" is an impressive burst of jazzy proficiency. "She's Alive," meanwhile, starts off strong, but its stab at relevant lyricism (addressing the toils of single motherhood) loses steam about halfway through. It's as if being serious proves so taxing for Andre that he can't harness his talent for freshness to breathe life into the song.

At least, it's certainly clear that being less than focused, musically and lyrically, comes easier to Andre here. From belabored skits like "Where Are My Panties" and "God (Interlude)" to the inane "She Lives in My Lap," the eye-rolling "Spread" and the faintly intriguing "Dracula's Wedding" (which uses vampirism as a clunky metaphor for male fear of commitment), it's clear that Andre (apparently feeling his oats after a split from Erykah Badu) confuses sexual candor (and immaturity) with insight. (Let us quickly forget the regrettable "poo-poo" references of the utterly-without-merit "Roses.")

While these moments might prove fascinating to Andre's analyst, for the rest of us, they show an artist still struggling with the confines of his art. The Love Below doesn't break or ignore genre rules so much as it loses interest in them, enthralled as it is with its own "daring" in laying bare Andre's inner sexual pathos. Unfortunately, Attention Deficit Disorder just isn't a workable substitute for craft, nor is a preoccupation with sex (and the scary concept of commitment) quite the same as art. Who knew that Big Boi, the rapper with a stripper's pole in his den, would prove OutKast's stabilizing influence?

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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