Never Trust a Man With a Butter Knife
“Being a lover of hip-hop, I get excited whenever André 3000 releases a new razor.”—Neal Brennan, via Twitter
Let’s be honest: it’s probably a good thing that OutKast won’t be getting back together anytime soon.
Truly think about it: Big Boi’s last solo album, 2010’s absolutely untouchable Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, was a marvelously diverse, positively head-spinning disc of songs that were quirky, weird, diverse in style and eccentric in nature. The album got almost no radio support and yet still debuted at #3 on the album charts, using virtually all of his earned goodwill to get it on people’s radars and very few being disappointed with what they heard. Big Boi was an encouraging force on the disc, bringing the best out of his producers (Lil Jon’s surprising mood piece “Hustle Blood”, Scott Storch’s triumphant return to good music with “Shutterbugg”), pushing them into new directions while inadvertently outshining each and every guest that showed up to take the mic away from Antwan André Patton. It was a logical step up from his half of OutKast’s Grammy-winning monster Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, stealing the spotlight away from André 3000 (whose half of that collaboration was expected to be outstanding but wound up being just “out there”, drum-n-bass covers of showtunes notwithstanding).
As the 2006 film/album project Idlewild proved, OutKast’s days of end-to-end burners seemed to be a thing of the past (while many still consider 2000’s Stankonia to be their creative apex, many more hardcore fans rightly contend that 1998’s Aquemini was the moment when they got every single thing right). André 3000’s guest verses since then were sporadic at best, but the few times he did drop a verse, it was often stunning. In the interim, 3000 spent time starring in movies, creating kid’s TV shows, and selling lots of razorblades. Legal wrangling prevented 3000 from appearing on Luscious (save for producing the trunk-rattlin’ “You Ain’t No DJ”) and last year Big Boi was certain that L.A. Reid would work it out so the duo could be united. However, that was not meant to be.
So what are we left with? Just another forward-thinking, gloriously unpredictable slab of rap music that plays by few established rules in the pop playbook with highlights to spare.
While Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors proves to be another powerful opus in Big Boi’s ever-improving solo career, it should be noted right out the gate that this disc does suffer a bit of sequelitis. For starters, a lot of the sonic tricks that helped make Luscious as far-reaching as it did are brought back for another go-round (note how the vocoder on lead offering “Mama Told Me” feels replicated wholesale from Luscious’ first single “Shuterbugg”), some beats feel a bit tired (“She Hates Me” sound like the unwelcome offspring of the productions from Usher’s “Love in this Club” and Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On”), and there are precious few moments when Big Boi’s machine gun turret of punchlines fall a bit flat (“My music sound so good it’s almost like we’re having sex”, from “Objectum Sexuality”, pales in comparison to “Drip drip drop / Here comes an eargasm”). Yet even with those quibbles aside, Vicious remains a wildly entertaining, defiantly strange album that has little in common with most major label rap releases in 2012, and for that we should all be incredibly grateful.
When you look back through OutKast’s output throughout the years, you tend to notice that the group rarely resorts to using samples, often looking to create new sounds and beats that help drive their music into the wild and unexpected (who can ever forget that harmonica breakdown in “Rosa Parks”?). A lot of the crew from Luscious is brought over for beatcrafting purposes (Oragnized Noize tragically relegated to a single track on the standard release, two on the Deluxe), but it’s his discovery of Barsuk-signed electro group Phantogram that proves to be his big breakthrough discovery. The group appears and handles production on no less than three of Vicious’ 14 tracks, and they’re almost all stunners. The moody synth piece “Lines” features Sarah Barthel’s ethereal voice turning into a room full of DuPree sisters kindly showing A$AP Rocky where he can drop his verses at, the club-ready “CPU” feels like the best track post-millennial Prince has yet to produce (hold the Tony M, please), and then, of course, there’s the bonkers “Objectum Sexuality”. From a spoken word/violin breakdown after the first verse, a brilliantly chopped-up vocal sample in the chorus, and an honest-to-goodness bridge, Phantogram manage to breathe a whole new life into Big Boi’s aural universe, and the album is all the better for it.
Not to say that Viscious wouldn’t survive without those contributions. The sticky-with-Mountain Dew indie rock of “Shoes for Running” (featuring Wavves wailing a creepy nursery rhyme and a better-than-usual verse from B.o.B.) presents a lightning fast opening salvo from Big Boi, referencing The Price is Right, Occupy Wall Street, and more within the course of only 11 seconds:
What about the people that’s barefoot with no shoes for running when the sun come up?
Hey one-percenters, the 99 say “What you gonna do for us?”
We’ll run up in your house like the first runner up
Be the first one to rock and the last one to get laid down
Stay down, and now we lookin’ at the top of the pound
It’s a pretty stunning display of virtuosity, and it only highlights what the ultimate strength of any Big Boi album is: the man at the center of the ring. Although Little Dragon, Sleepy Brown, Ludacris, and T.I. all stop by to try and steal the spotlight, Big Boi knows how to produce for himself, and he is (as he always is on his albums) the ever-pleasing, quip-firing ball of charisma at the center of his own masquerade party. He can play to the streets (“In the A”, Vicious’ own update of Lucious’ “General Patton”), go off the R&B deep end (the inexplicable “Raspberries”), and even turn in his own update of “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” with the ethereal closing ballad “Descending”—and somehow it all works on its own internal logic. When he needs he can be the cleverest man in the room (”Big Boi for Dummies / Come to get some / Wisdom / Like your back teeth / And get the fuck on / Like some bad chi”), or drop some stunning surprises that rely entirely on timing (just hear how well he plays that pause between syllables on the word “colder” on the Deluxe Edition cut “She Said OK”), or he can be openly emotional about his personal life (which he does on the biographical “Tremendous Damage”, a track that’s stirring but unfortunately not as drop-dead stunning as Luscious “The Train Pt. 2”). He can put on many different moods and faces, but age hasn’t slowed down his abilities in the slightest, as Viscious shows him continuing to ride high at the top of his game.
For some fans it’ll no doubt still be a stretch to swallow something as unconventional as “Descending” on a mainstream rap release like this, but Big Boi’s constant quest for new sonic landscapes to conquer is ultimately what makes him so compelling a figure in pop music, and his need to explore further is exactly what gives him the license to do so. Some may bemoan the “been here, done that” vibes that invariably come with a sequel album such as this one, but so be it: we’re still left with one of the most fascinating, surprising, and entertaining rap albums you’re going to hear all year.