The End of OutKast?
If OutKast did not exist, we would have had to invent them. In an emaciated musical landscape filled with career-minded entrepreneurs and regrettably predictable indie darlings, they have been one of the rare groups to stand out from a crowded field. They’ve always had more ambition than they knew what to do with: instead of taking an easy route to superstardom based on early successes, they’ve consistently gone out of their way to court disaster by doing the least predictable thing possible. They’ve little interest in building a “hip-hop dynasty” or filling stadiums with crowd-pleasing pop—they’re more likely to follow in the footsteps of a notorious crank like Prince than methodical businessmen like Jay-Z or Coldplay.
They have never understood the concept of moderation. Whereas most hip-hop has been content to remain in a condition of perpetual stupor, regurgitating the same concepts year in and out while paying lip service to all but a few innovators, OutKast has suffered from a surfeit of ideas. This eclecticism has served them well, for the most part: even if their albums have increasingly suffered from a patchy lack of cohesion, the bounty of fresh ideas has been enough to keep them afloat when lesser artists have floundered. Even if Stankonia was nowhere near as strong a statement as Aquemini, there were still a handful of inarguable classics scattered throughout. Even if Speakerboxxx / The Love Below was, let’s be honest, highly dubious in places, there were still enough moments of sheer brilliance to allow the conscientious listener to forgive them their excess. It was refreshing simply to hear a modern pop group—you know, the kind that people actually listen to and who actually sell albums—with the guts to be weird. For a while, there just wasn’t a lot of weird to go around.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a less likely candidate for massive worldwide success than OutKast. At any step along the way of their long career they could have faltered: after the release of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik they could have, without even exerting themselves, became another well-respected but predictably conservative rap duo, the type of hardcore journeymen who get four mics from The Source every time they sneeze but who also consistently peak at gold or less (a la Beanie Siegel and Scarface). After ATLians they could have settled into the well-trod roles of hip-hop weirdos (albeit with a bit more commercial appeal), setting up shop next to Del tha Funky Homosapien and Kool Keith. Even after Aquemini, they could have merely (merely!) followed in the footsteps of The Roots and become another critically acclaimed but commercially ignored phenomenon, beloved by backpackers and caucasian rock critics but invisible to the streets. But they followed each successive album with something totally different. Whatever the “safe” move would have been, they consistently chose the path not taken.
Aquemini was followed by Stankonia, which may not have been anywhere near as solid an achievement, but which conquered the world based on the strength of a handful of pop-crossover tracks that managed the neat trick of being both extremely odd and very accessible. It goes without saying that even based on this extremely unpredictable track record, following up Stankonia with a double album of bizarre Prince-inspired rock and R&B was still probably the weirdest thing they could do without actually singing country music. That they managed throughout to not only keep the respect of the critical community—cutting across color lines to become a favorite of both white rock critics and the hip-hop establishment—but kept the respect of the streets in the process is nothing sort of amazing. Usually, experimentation in hip-hop results in a dramatic loss of esteem on the part of the underground, and yet Outkast have lost none of their luster: as far-out as Andre 3000 has gone, they’ve kept their roots firmly entrenched in the ATL, placing them at ground zero of the last decade’s Southern hip-hop explosion. Even an aggressively class-conscious new-school leader like T.I. pays homage to OutKast, because he recognizes that while he may be the King of the South, Big Boi and Dre are in a different league altogether.
So how do you follow up something as sui generis as Speakerboxx / The Love Below? A sane group would probably have spent some time better exploring the terrain they’ve already mapped, building on early experimentation to achieve something less ephemeral and more consistent. That’s essentially what Aquemini was: a departure from their previous work, but not necessarily a radical departure. Like OK Computer after The Bends, it was easy to see how their earlier, tentative work had paved the way towards a far more assured achievement. The result, in both instances, was a far more confident album, the kind of consistently magnificent record that comes along but rarely. But since Aquemeni the duo’s restless creativity has almost taken on the form of a pathology—not content to rest on their laurels, even when such a course would probably be recommended, they have continually challenged themselves.
And the seams are starting to show. Ever since Stankonia the dominant storyline through their career has been: how long? How long until these two irreconcilably different artists go their separate ways? If Stankonia was slightly schizophrenic in its reflection of both Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s creative temperaments, then Speakerboxxx / The Love Below was totally bifurcated: two albums by two different people, supposedly conceived as solo projects but eventually combined to present a unified front. And now the duo are back with a new album. And instead of merely being another album, it’s the soundtrack to a movie of the same name. But this is no mere rags-to-riches urban bildungsroman like 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Trying or even Purple Rain, no, this is a 1930s period piece complete with bootleggers, the mob and old-fashioned juke-joints. And, accordingly, the music for Idlewild is not merely contemporary hip-hop, but a unique hybridization of modern hip-hop with vintage big-band jazz and Delta blues. Sort of.
But it would appear as if the Dynamic Duo have bitten off more than they can chew, because the results are, while brilliant in places, overall astonishingly mediocre. A handful of excellent songs spread over 25 tracks is just not a good batting average for a group like OutKast. This is not something that makes me happy to type. Even when the results were mixed, it has always been exhilarating to see OutKast moving forward. Now, it just seems tired. For all the printers ink that has been spent in bewailing the inevitability of OutKast’s breakup, I would say based upon the evidence of Idlewild that such a breakup looks not merely inevitable but probably overdue. It is apparent that the duo have for all intents and purposes forgotten how to make music together, and it would not be much of a stretch to imagine that they simply have no idea as to why exactly they were so effective together in the first place.
The conventional wisdom has long held Big Boi to be the stolidly conservative bedrock of the group, with Andre 3000 as the flighty, eclectic musical polymath. To a degree it seems as if these thumbnails are essentially correct. After all, Andre has made no secret of his love for Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Kate Bush and Prince—hardly the most “gangsta” influences. And while Dre has transformed himself into a futuristic funk rock auteur, Big Boi has stayed relatively grounded, keeping inside the general borders of conventional hip-hop while also maintaining the traditional accouterments of rap success: a passel of proteges, posse-filled mix-tapes and pit-bull breeding. But these kind of reductive descriptions break down upon closer inspection of the actual music.
Take a look at the first two singles off Idlewild, Big Boi’s “Morris Brown” and Dre’s “Idlewild Blue (Don’tchu Worry ‘Bout Me)”. Essentially, it’s the same kind of split we saw between “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya” off Speakerboxxx / The Love Below: a more traditional hip-hop song and a leftfield pop number. But “Idlewild Blue” is less groundbreaking than “Hey Ya”—it’s an interesting track but not a great one. Essentially, it’s a blues song, pretty much the same kind of rocking blues you could have heard at any point from the 1940s on through today. The rhythm is built on the same extremely crisp and taut beats that you heard all over The Love Below, with electronic beats diced and chopped away from the loping hip-hop 4/4 and into a rock-based groove. It’s great to hear the blues on pop radio, but it lacks the energy of “Hey Ya”. Much like a great deal of The Love Below, the production is simply too thin and slick to sustain extended exposure; whereas both hip-hop and the blues can gain power from atmosphere and depth-of-field, Dre’s production sounds tinny and slight, and when offset against his frenetic persona it seems downright cursory. Without the propulsive mania of a “Hey Ya”, it falls considerably short—despite the (unfortunately) outmoded genre, a fairly predictable piece.
Compare this with the supposedly conservative Big Boi’s “Morris Brown”, an early contender for the most bizarre hip-hop single of the year. Sure, it follows the same loose template as “The Way You Move”, with rapped verses and sung choruses courtesy of Sleepy Brown, but sonically it is far more adventurous than just about anything else on the album. The track appears to have been constructed from the spare parts of a marching band, with hard drumlines and horn fanfares, but it doesn’t move like anything else. Slinky and loose, it meanders around the hook in an exaggerated, sly manner that belies the intensely involved musical construction. It’s one of those rare songs that seems both more and less dense than it actually is: from one perspective it sounds deliriously busy and jam-packed with sound, from another light and spry on it’s feet, barely touching the ground. Tellingly, Dre and Big Boi cowrote “Morris Brown” (even if Dre does not rap or sing on the track), whereas “Idlewild Blue” is solely a Dre production. Those few moments when Dre and Big Boi appear side by side, truly collaborating instead of merely sharing space, are the album’s best.
The dichotomy between the two lead singles is fairly indicative of the album as a whole. The conflict between Dre and Big Boi’s opposing ambitions has surpassed the level of subtext to become a genuine lyrical preoccupation—from the very beginning of the disc, on album-opener “Mighty O”, to the aptly-titled “Hollywood Divorce”, on through “The Train”, the idea of breaking up is never far from the heart of the proceedings. One can even see the duo’s mutually-exclusive ambitions butting heads on the credits for each track. Whereas Big Boi’s tracks are usually produced in tandem with sidemen like Sleepy Brown, Janelle Monae and Scar, Dre’s songs are mostly the product of his singular contributions. As Big Boi himself says on “The Train”:
And now it’s time to say goodbye, they should have turned me loose,
I was all about my team but now I call upon my crew,
I’m a family type of person but I’m deadly solo too,
You can achieve anything that you put your heart into,
See the second hand won’t ever stop and neither will the clock,
That nigga Big hit the stage by himself and still rock.
But even given this personality clash, the duo have further saddled themselves with the unenviable chore of producing an album in the sonic milieu of the period in which the music takes place. Given the results, it seems as if this was simply one contradiction too many. The album is uneven, split between those tracks that hew close to the storyline and context of the movie and those that reflect a more contemporary sound. The approach doesn’t hold water, because the majority of tracks are frankly unmemorable—undeveloped, underdeveloped or simply odd. It simply sounds stretched thin, as if the attempt to do too much too fast resulted in a lack of quality throughout. Even at its most indulgent, Speakerboxxx / The Love Below never felt rushed or incomplete; Idlewild sounds like the unfortunate conjunction of too many ideas, too many conflicting agendas and very little quality control. It’s trying to be a movie soundtrack, a legitimate OutKast album, a spotlight for Big Boi’s Purple City crew and a solo joint for Andre 3000 all at the same time, and unfortunately it fails. Whereas before, even in the duo’s most schizophrenic moments, it was possible to follow a strong thru-line in the median where both approaches met—the definition of OutKast—here there’s only chaos.
It doesn’t help that a large chunk of the album is devoted to performers other than OutKast. Macy Gray, apparently a significant part in the film, gets a song to herself, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, which is fine insomuch as Idlewild is a soundtrack album, but pretty perfunctory in any other respect (and I like Macy Gray). Whild Peach sings a song called “Mutron Angel”, and Janelle Monae gets “Call The Law”, an uptempo ragtime number. Most of these tracks stick closely to the movie’s ragtime feel, and as such they are clustered together in the back nine towards the end of the album, almost as an afterthought, along with “PJ & Rooster”, one of the few tracks on which both Big Boi and Dre appear, but also, unfortunately, one in which they are both “in character” from the movie. “Mutron Angel” gets props for being a sublimely beautiful track, built off a gospel feeling that seems slightly anomalous next to the rest of the album. It wouldn’t necessarily feel out of place as a mellow track on the next Chemical Brothers album, which places it in good company.
It’s good to see at least one member of the late, lamented Goodie Mob show up, but not even Khujo Goodie can do much to salvage the borderline insulting “N2U” (if that wasn’t the name of a Backstreet Boys song, it should have been). Still, even given that, Big Boi’s contributions are consistently stronger than Andre’s. Even a fairly interesting track like “Makes No Sense At All”, with it’s skittering mixture of jazz piano and IDM snare hits, breaks even because of Andre’s rather absurd decision to speed-up his voice to sound like a chipmunk, to say nothing of a train-wreck like “Chronomentrophobia” (again with the clock imagery!) These are exactly the kind of disastrous creative decisions that having a partner is supposed to prevent. Set next to a track like Big Boi’s “In Your Dreams”, which achieves a much more sublime effect with nothing so much as a good hook and restrained production, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that some of Dre’s more adventurous flights of fancy simply needed more work. The album-closing pairing of “Dyin’ to Live” and “A Bad Note” brings things out on a fairly expansive, numinous note, but one can’t help but thinking that the overall effect is remarkably similar to Funkadelic’s classic “Maggot Brain”—so similar as to be practically litigious.
Considering hip-hop’s status as a supremely adaptive genre, it is surprising that other traditionally black forms such as the blues and jazz have had relatively little influence on the evolution of rap. There have always been a few jazz / hip-hop fusions skirting around the underground, but for the most part hip-hop production has been a remarkably isolated field, and any deviations from a strictly orthodox template have been steadfastly resisted (unless Common’s Electric Circus shipped platinum and I missed it). In particular, it seems incredible that no one has as of yet attempted to make a go of an honest blues / hip-hop fusion—there may have been a few that I’m not aware of, but the only one I can really remember was the song Nas did with his daddy. It would be nice if Outkast got the credit for spurring a revival of these ancient genres in modern hip-hop, but given the patchy results on display here there’s every possibility that the advances will be summarily ignored. “Mighty ‘O’”, with it’s Cab Calloway shout-outs and funky organ grind, go a long way towards approximating the energy and atmosphere of old time big-bang, but this kind of seamless hybrid is thin on the ground. Again, “Mighty ‘O’” is one of the few track to feature both principles side by side, and it’s accordingly fantastic.
Which brings me back to the heart of the matter: for the first time, OutKast’s reach has exceeded their grasp. Perhaps a failure will be just what they needed, a good swift kick in the ass to set them back on the straight and narrow. Or perhaps a poorly-received sixth-album will merely serve as the pretext for a seemingly-inevitable breakup. There is simply no way for an outsider to gain any perspective into something as intimate as the kind of collaboration shared by Dre and big Boi all these years. They may feel quite comfortable working together in separate contexts for years to come, or may already feel deep resentment towards the other’s sharply divergent ambitions. I have a suspicion that a project like Idlewild may have been borne from a last-gasp attempt to keep both parties interested in the idea of being together, a seemingly insurmountable challenge from which neither could back away. There is a lot of good material scattered throughout the album, but the running time could easily have been cut in half to create a far more consistent, and undoubtedly superior album.
Every project since the beginning of their careers has been bigger than the last. At some point you have to imagine there are two choices open to them: either accept that they’ve gone about as big as they can go and get down to the business of “merely” making good music together, or accept that they’ve gone as big as they can go together and decide to go their separate ways. It’s a hard choice for any band to make. The success of OK Computer nearly destroyed Radiohead, but instead of imploding from the pressure they decided that it wasn’t such a bad thing to be musicians after all, and that they were probably more interesting together than apart—even if the chances were fairly high that they would never again record anything as huge as OK Computer. But then there’s always Uncle Tupelo and At the Drive In—everyone wept bitter tears when they broke up, but I think it’s fair at this point to say that Wilco and the Mars Volta have pretty much definitively eclipsed the bands that spawned them.
It’s worth remembering, however, that the partnership of Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton has been, to date, one of the most electrical in pop music history. Whatever the dynamics of their creative partnership may be, the commingling of their specific temperaments has produced some of the very best hip-hop ever created, stretching the genre to its limits and changing the perception of what hip-hop can be and accomplish. The perfect union of street-wise, old-school conservatism and future-tense, catholic expansionism, they’ve eloquently symbolized the most basic conflict in American pop music history: the battle between tradition and iconoclasm, the desire to stay down on the farm and the urge to strike out on one’s own in the great wide world. For a long time Outkast managed to find a home in the comfortable medium between conflicting extremes; if the strain of this conflict has finally taken its toll, it would be churlish not to wish them the best of luck on their future endeavors. If we remain steadfastly convinced that they are far more effective together than apart, then so be it. It is their prerogative not to pay any attention whatsoever.
// Notes from the Road
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