In the heady days of 2001, as singles from OutKast’s album Stankonia demolished genre and radio formats, some smart folks started comparing the hip-hop duo to the Beatles. Big, red warning flares. Typically, when a hip-hop group produced music melodic and oddball enough to warrant a Beatles comparison, it was a prelude to a sophomore slump (De La Soul) or a dramatic falloff in creativity (Beastie Boys). But surprisingly, after a detour with a greatest hits album (an even graver sign of doom), OutKast roared back with 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and dominated airwaves again well into 2004.
Now the band’s output is slowing down—they’re releasing a movie soundtrack this winter, and Andre 3000 is taking on more acting jobs. Big Boi is using this lull to try out one of the Beatlesisms that very few groups last long enough to emulate. This summer, he took the reins of OutKast’s sleepy Aquemini vanity label and rechristened it Purple Ribbon Entertainment. The Apple Records-style imprint is releasing two albums this year, starting with this compilation, Got Purp? Vol. II.
If the album works (it does) and the label is a success (it might be), it’s because Big Boi surrounds himself with artists who sound nothing like him. The label’s established stars, Bubba Sparxxx and Killer Mike, are cut from the same cloth as Big Boi, and their tracks here could have appeared on Speakerboxxx. But most of the songs here sound totally different than anything on that record or even The Love Below.
The first real surprise, coming after two fat hip-hop tracks and three skits, is Sleepy Brown’s “Me, My Baby, & My Cadillac”. It’s a straight-up pop-soul song by the producer of TLC’s “Waterfalls”, and evokes a Hummer limo cruising into a car wash staffed by Pam Grier lookalikes. Janelle Monae’s two songs are just as catchy, but dip into very different styles. Her “Time Will Reveal” is a disco song, believe it or not, decked out with bubbly electro effects and layered tracks of her sweet, rich vocals. Monae’s other song “Lettin’ Go” isn’t as successful, but it’s nice to hear proud, catchy electro-pop gaining a foothold outside of Gwen Stefani albums.
Two contributions by Scar keep the creativity bubbling. His Big Boi collaboration “U Got Me” is yet more disco, this time decked out with Barry White strings. The luxorious “What Is This?” (with Cee-Lo) is an R. Kelly song minus the ego, the lazy production and, in the last couple years, the urge to start giggling.
What about the hip-hop tracks? For the most part, they kill. The leadoff single “Kryptonite (I’m on It)”, which pulls together Big Boi, Killer Mike, and two more Purple Ribbon artists, is simply one of the year’s best songs. The emcees trade off verses over a nimble piano hook that stops on every downbeat, then a snaky Middle-Eastern-sounding horn sample. At the chorus they join in on a chant backed up by a bass line that shatters pavement at 35 decibels.
The next two hip-hop tracks are solid, slower, and a little less ambitious. “Body Rock” sounds a bit like “Kryptonite”, but slowed down and with Michael Bay keyboard blasts replacing the piano hooks. Bubba Sparxxx’s showcase “Claremont Lounge” is as sleazy as its strip club namesake, and emcees trade rhymes like “High as fuck, contemplating million dollar plans. She a million dollar bitch and I’m a million dollar man. Only thing missing is about a million dollars.”
Two of the hip-hop tracks are disappointments. The Goodie Mob comeback track “Hold On” starts strong but goes nowhere, and Big Boi’s own “808” doesn’t even start strong. But the mixtape finishes well with two songs by Konkrete.
If you want to continue the Beatles/Apple parallel, Konkrete is Badfinger—matching the best hooks of his mentors and coupling them with dirty, radio-friendly riffs. (If you want to keep pursuing that parallel, I think Scar is the new James Taylor. Perhaps you should stop pursuing that parallel.) “Lovin’ This” is a raunchy diary entry from Konkrete’s sex life and groundbreaking techniques, and “Shit Ya Drawers” is a string of call-outs and insults with a furious chorus hook: “Punk! Bitch! Punk! Bitch!”
It’s nice that, with OutKast, we’ve found a hip-hop group that met the Beatles comparisons and survived. But it may be time to retire those comparisons. Apple Records was always more of a tax shelter and Harrison/Lennon outtake depot than a real record company. Judging by these first offerings, Purple Ribbon and its artist stable could amount to much more.