Since founding OutKast in the early nineties, Atlantans Antwan Patton and André Benjamin have referred to themselves as the player and the poet: Patton, known as Big Boi, is the player; Benjamin, a.k.a. André 3000, is the poet. In their music, these opposites exist side-by-side, with the duo making connections between disparate traditions like the church and hip-hop. The chorus of their 1999 hit “Rosa Parks” featured Sunday-service-style hand-claps over percussive beats. This duality stands out in a genre that has become single-mindedly gangsta. But OutKast has made its split personality work commercially because André and Big Boi possess such a strong sense of hook and groove (there isn’t a soul around who can resist singing along to OutKast’s Stylistics-esque 2001 hit “Ms. Jackson”).
It’s always thrilling when the subtext that has been running through a great musician’s work suddenly bursts into the light. OutKast’s new two-CD set, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, is such an event, with Big Boi and André each taking a CD for himself. The schizophrenia of OutKast has at last come unbound. But anyone expecting Speakerboxxx (Big Boi’s half) or The Love Below (André’s) to be split cleanly between pimp posturing and futuristic funk is in for a shock: Speakerboxxx, with its heavy doses of electro, New Orleans jazz, Funkadelic-style black rock, and gangsta rap, proves that neither André nor Big Boi fits our preconceived notions of them. Try as André might—and he tries hard on The Love Below—the usually more conservative Big Boi out-weirds him by a country mile.
The genius of Speakerboxxx, however, is how far out Big Boi goes without ever losing the listener. Speakerboxx is all rollicking party music, full of bursting horns, huge choruses, and the sparse beats of the 808 drum machine, a classic piece of electronic-music equipment favored by techno producers. But Speakerboxxx is just as moving as it is accomplished in its beat-making. “The Rooster” is a day-in-the-life of single fatherhood, and in “War,” Big Boi reflects on the murder of Daniel Pearl, the 2000 election, and the Iraq war. And on “Knowing,” he offers a summation of our deficited-to-death, brink-of-apocalypse moment worthy of Paul Krugman: “From this point on,” he raps, “it only gets rougher.” Speakerboxxx—by itself the album of the year—makes the failings of The Love Below all the more evident. It isn’t that The Love Below isn’t risky; it is. It’s just that the gambles don’t pay off as often as they should. Worse, a lot of André’s experimentation is self-indulgent. As unfair as it is to say in a music business that’s bred risk out of its DNA, The Love Below could have used taming of its wilder impulses. At the very least, the experiments should have been in less-predictable genres: retro-seventies funk (“Happy Valentine’s Day”) and jazz fusion (“The Love Below”) are the last refuge of the creatively challenged superstar (ask Prince). But when AndréÂ’s left-turns work—and they occasionally do—the rewards are huge. “Spread” is one of the most unusual love songs IÂ’ve ever heard, a valentine set to rough breakbeats. And “Hey Ya!” is one of the best singles of the year: With its amped-up, acoustic-guitar-driven pop and vintage synths, it sounds like the Beatles playing with Stereolab.
Mostly, though, André is unconcerned with his audience on The Love Below; he just wants to get freaky in the studio. Big BoiÂ’s Speakerboxxx is bolder—he wants to go where most hip-hoppers fear to tread and take the MTV audience along with him. It strikes at the essence of what has made OutKast so important to pop: the accessible, democratic nature of its strangeness. Audiences always believed that André was the genius behind this rare balance; Speakerboxxx/The Love Below proves that the player, not the poet, is its true author.