There’s an old proverb about genius that says “talent does what it can, genius does what it must.” In the world of the corporate-controlled, media-driven, trend-following music industry where record labels pump out cookie-cutter music by the baker’s dozens it is rare that you come across mainstream hip-hop artists who are willing to push the envelope by daring to go creatively where few artist are willing to go. Most artists would rather stick to the carefully prepared scripts that brought them gold and platinum the first time. Hence why so many of today’s contemporary hip-hop records tend to sound alike.
For the past nine years the Atlanta-based super duo, OutKast, has been consistently pushing hip-hop’s envelope by expanding its musical boundaries with every album they release. Their unique blend of jazz, blues, soul, rock and world music along with some good old-fashioned hip-hop laced with their Southern sensibilities has constantly set the world on its ear. And none of their albums have ever sounded alike.
OutKast started their luminous career in 1994 when their classic hit, “Player’s Ball,” became an unlikely single on LaFace Records’ Christmas album, a label traditionally known for its suave R&B music. The reaction to the record persuaded Antonio “L. A.” Reid (LaFace President, CEO and co-owner) to sign the young duo as the label’s first hip-hop act. Their spectacular debut LP Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, with its sparse samples and live instrumentation reminiscent of the golden era of 70s soul, sold one million copies and help to lay a solid foundation for the current explosion of Southern hip-hop.
With their sophomore LP, ATLiens, Big Boi (née: Antwan Patton) and Dré (née: André Benjamin) showed the world that the South really did have something to say, and 1.5 million people were listening to ‘Kast’s trunk-rattling funk, gleaned from the spirit of Sly Stone, Mandrill, and George Clinton. In addition to their incredible commercial success, critics were praising both Dré and Big Boi for their silky southern flows and clever lyrics celebrating everything from “Growing Old” to the “Wheelz of Steel.” The record cemented the duo’s position as one of the few groups on the cutting edge of hip-hop.
After the release of their third LP, Aquemini, the “two dope boys in a Cadillac” reached a major plateau in their career. Declared a “hip-hop classic” by several hip-hop publications including the Source and Rap Pages, Aquemini blended elements of 70s soul, funk, jazz and reggae with hip-hop to create a record that opened 3 million people up to new musical possibilities for the genre. To this day Aquemini remains one of the quintessential records in hip-hop.
On Stankonia, OutKast pushed the envelope even further by revisiting the spirit of George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel, dipping millions of listeners into some good old-fashioned psychedelic hip-hop funk. Once again, OutKast garnered rave reviews with their latest studio offering and, true to form, picked up a couple of million fans along the way. The record sold a whopping five million units worldwide.
For their fifth effort the two decided to take a break and release a greatest hits album, Big Boi and Dre Present OutKast, as a retrospective for the new fans who just got hip to OutKast. The record contained three new songs, one of which, “The Whole World,” earned them a coveted Grammy Award for Best Rap Song by a duo or group. Now with their sixth release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, André 3000 and Big Boi have taken a bold step forward by releasing an unprecedented dual CD containing their own individual musical statements, thus giving fans a glimpse into the creative minds of each member.
On The Love Below, André 3000 uses a musical canvas compiled of funk, rock, techno and straight-ahead jazz to explore the nexus between love and lust. It is perhaps the most intensely personal statement he has ever made musical or otherwise.
“[The Love Below] started as four or five songs that I was doing at home,” says André 3000. “I had these songs and I was starting to see a theme. And maybe it was the way I was writing them or the mood I was in, but they were all revolving around relationships. And so I said ‘hey, maybe I should do this side project,’ which will be all singing because I hadn’t really wrote any rhymes for it yet. So what I said was ‘okay, I’ll do this side project and put it out and this will be like a soundtrack to an independent film project that I’ll do called ‘She Lives in my Lap’ but we decided that that title was too risqué for a movie. So we changed it to The Love Below.”
While the independent film project never materialized, the movie did serve as a springboard for Dré’s continued exploration and experimentation with various forms of music. In addition, the budding musician moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and finish working on the album.
The Love Below opens with Dré crooning in a sweet falsetto much in the tradition of Phillip Bailey or Prince on “Love Hater,” a swinging jazz track that would make jazz balladeers like Jimmy Scott and Joe Williams very proud. For a taste of the funk, Dré drops intoxicating jams like “Happy Valentine’s Day,” a hi-energy joint centered on a rhythmic guitar lick and a thunderous bass line that recalls the heyday of Parliament/Funkadelic, and “Behold a Lady,” an up-tempo song that revolves around a space age techno-funk beat.
The single “She Lives in My Lap,” featuring actress Rosario Dawson, is a scintillating track celebrating the love that lives below the belt. However, just when you think that you’ve got the hang of where André 3000 is coming from musically, he takes you on yet another side street of his musical repertoire by giving you pleasantly surprising songs like “Hey Ya,” a funky jam that sounds like a cross between the Beatles and the classic Motown sound of the early 60s. “Roses,” a song that chastises gold diggers and groupies, is another song that falls into this category. Built around a slinky, funky groove and a classic rhythm with a near perfect backbeat, “Roses” also features Big Boi flowing milky smooth, combining complex lyrics with internal rhymes that will keep rap fans hitting rewind more than once. Dré slows down the pace with romantic songs like “Prototype,” an ethereal funk ballad that celebrates 3000’s perfect woman, and the smoldering ballad “Pink and Blue,” which celebrates the May/December romance between a younger man and an older woman. Each of the songs gives the listener a little vignette that actually helps frame the overall plot of the film script that will ultimately become the movie, The Love Below.
“[The Love Below] is about this guy who doesn’t believe in settling down. He never felt like he’s gonna get married,” explains André. “And one day Cupid shoots him in the club. He falls in love with this girl who he has one nightstand with. If you listen to the album, you can hear the story a little bit. Like the song ‘Roses’ is about this girl name Caroline. She’s beautiful, but she has a stank attitude. ‘Pink & Blue’ is about this lady named Ms. Pinkerton. She’s an older lady that this character dealt with, so every song deals with a different character in the movie.”
In addition to handling all of the production and vocal duties on The Love Below, Dré plays a great deal of the instruments on the record, including the keyboards and the majority of the drums programming (except for “Roses,” which was done by Dojo 5). Dré can also be heard playing guitar on almost every song, with the exception of “Love Hater.” The Love Below proves that André 3000 is one of the most gifted musicians that his generation has produced.
While his “partner-in-rhyme” shows off his musical diversity, Big Boi opts to showcase his lyrical prowess on his solo effort, Speakerboxx. Big Boi does this by paying homage to the foundation of Southern hip-hop: the Roland 808 bass.
“Basically, Speakerboxxx is my voice to the world,” says Big Boi. “The name has two meanings; the first one comes from the larynx, the voice box. The second was that I wanted to deal with a lot of Southern music on this one. You know we like that bass, which resonates at the low end of the speaker.”
Speakerboxxx opens up with a thunderous intro filled with rumbling 808 bass and segues into the rapid-fire ode to bass “Ghetto Musick.” “Ghetto Musick” has a break-neck speed that would cripple the average MC’s flow, but Big Boi floats on this complex rhythm like a butterfly soaring over a roaring river. “Tomb of Boom” brings more of that trunk-rattling bass-laden funk that OutKast is known for. “With that cut right there, I just wanted something that had the hardest, wickedest sounding bass with a real simple track, with some hard ass MCs on there. I had to go get Concrete from right off the label because they was some of the hardest sounding MCs that I know. Then I got Big Gipp because he is my brother in hardness. And Ludacris is another cat outta the “A” who was hard because I really just wanted straight “A-Town MCs” on this one. I’m really into MCing, and I’m just trying to come up with some shit that they ain’t never heard before.” Anchored around a tight bass line, a hard 808 kick and a crashing hi-hat, “Tomb of Boom” induces a head-nodding trance that harks back to the golden age of hip-hop.