September 23, 2003

OutKast divides and conquers on new album
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

After three years of studio experimentation, one of the world's most-anticipated album quickly became one of the world's most difficult to grasp. Overflowing with groundbreaking music, the double album could not entirely hold itself together and nearly burst at its seams. Divergent artistic visions and individual aspirations were pulling the band apart, and the resulting music, hitherto augmented by the juxtaposition of different styles, could now no longer survive the tension.

The year is 1968 and the album is the Beatles' White Album, yet the story might as well refer to OutKast and its new release Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. Coming off the overwhelming success of 2000's Stankonia, which sent critics fleeing to their thesauruses to find more hyperbolic ways to express admiration, the Atlanta duo ran into difficulty producing their follow-up. What do you do when everyone is expecting the unexpected?

The interaction between OutKast members Big Boi and Andre 3000 has always distinguished the group by exploiting their unique skills and creating something greater than the sum of their parts. Dre, the quixotic Gemini, propelled them into the funkiest layers of the stratosphere, while Big Boi, the gritty Aquarius, kept their feet firmly planted in the hood.

The apparent contradiction finally revealed itself as unsustainable when OutKast confirmed rumors that they were working on solo efforts to be packed as a double album. Rumors fluttered about that Andre instigated the separation and that he was tired of being limited by rapping and wanted to pursue other genres of music.

"OutKast, cell therapy, to cell division/ We just split it down the middle so you see both the visions," promises Big Boi. The two albums offer each artist the opportunity to explore his own personal agenda and result in two diametrically different sounds. As expected, Big Boi's half, Speakerboxxx, embraces the deep-fried, Deep South sound of classic OutKast. The album deserves praise for its consistent strength and would be considered progressive if it hadn't been packaged in the same case as Andre 3000's The Love Below.

Andre eschews rapping altogether and prefers to croon his way through an 80-minute meditation on the nature of love and relationships. The infectious joie de vivre with which he sings justifies his imperfect falsetto (though still superior to Pharrell Williams' high-pitched whine), yet his lyrical abilities are so impressive that it's truly a shame to lose such a great emcee.

But this album isn't about hip-hop; it's about mesmerizing music without boundaries. It's full of dizzying, incandescent explosions of brilliance that lead the enthralled listener in every unexpected direction. At times Dre seems over-ambitious and distracted by what amounts to musical masturbation, such as his obnoxious techno cover of "My Favorite Things." Andre flutters without hesitation from each of his creative impulses, apparently apathetic to the listener.

In one of the least likely and most successful collaboration in recent music, Andre and Norah Jones come together for a beautiful, simple duet in which Jones sings, "Baby, take off your cool/ I want to get to know you." Perhaps Dre should heed her advice and abandon his "too cool for rap" attitude so that OutKast can reachieve its yin-yang balance.