Big Boi: Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (take two)
Big Boi gets decidedly less funky while collaborating with Little Dragon, Phantogram, KiD CuDi and Wavves. Does he survive?
Even if you weren't aware that Big Boi's follow-up to 2010's critical smash Sir Luscious Left Foot was originally going to be called Daddy Fat Sax: Soul Funk Crusader, what's now called Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors would probably still be a surprise. The headlines throughout the shift of inspiration seemed totally bizarre: collaborating with Little Dragon, Modest Mouse, Phantogram, all the while hoping and praying for Kate Bush? Andre 3000 in, Andre 3000 out? It was all a bit overwhelming on paper, but now that the full album's in front of us and we get to see what Big Boi going all Electric Circus on us sounds like, actually processing the release remains awkward. There are many cynical and optimistic angles from which we can approach the album: "Pitchfork rap", pushing the boundaries of rap music as usual, doesn't "sound like" a Big Boi album, which is usually the effortless blending of seemingly disparate scenes to create a sort of hyper-hipsterism.
What's most important is that Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors doesn't sound exactly like Big Boi doing remixes of a bunch of cool garage and synthpop bands. That said, it does feel like Big Boi invited himself to their party, if that makes sense. Take "Shoes for Running", a collaboration with B.o.B. and Nathan Williams of Wavves (he sure turned that Sweet Valley hobby around fast, huh?) that sounds sort of like Nathan Williams grabbed B.o.B. to write up an ode to Animal Collective and modern surf rock in one big swing, but then Big Boi suggested throwing in a big 808 for a few seconds so he could join in. "Mama Told Me", which features Kelly Rowland on the released version and Little Dragon on the demo version, might open with Big Boi, but it's really just a huge, girly summer hit that feels like Rowland's song from the instant she starts in on it. Similarly, the three Phantogram tracks that made the final cut ("Lines", "Objectum Sexuality" and "CPU") feel pretty much like Big Boi cutting some wild music because they're really just Phantogram tracks.
That those songs are all pulled off respectably well, and some others even better ("Descending" is where Big Boi gets to duet, as in sing, with Little Dragon's Yukumi in a lament over the death of his father), is a testament to Big Boi's instincts as an artist. But the wide variety of sounds you'll hear on this album provides the same dilemma that's come to plague the Game's latter albums. With so much music clearly fitting into specified niches on one disc, it's hard to find anything specific for which we can root. There's not any sort of impetus to listen to the album as such; shuffling appears to keep the album fresher as time goes on, really. The actual running order of the deluxe edition is just fatiguing: "She Said OK" definitely doesn't earn its vulgarity nor does it give a good reason to buy the deluxe package, but placing it last makes it feel even more unimaginative. "Tremendous Damage" is extremely personal as he really digs into himself at points while flexing his ego at others, but it's all on a pretty if simple piano loop and some bass guitar while Bosko sings a fairly flat song that feels like Eliot Sloan (Blessid Union of Souls) fronting OneRepublic. It "works", but you'd have to be looking for that kind of thing going in. It's anyone's guess if Big Boi's main audience is.
It's worth pointing out again that, for the most part, philosophical hangups can lead to overestimating how much you're actually displeased with what you're hearing. "Objectum Sexuality" is a cool, rave up to the rave single from Phantogram that -- seemingly just to prove they could -- was fuel-enjected with a Stankonia sort of beat and Big Boi rapping as adventurous as ever in the middle. When it's pulled off this smooth, can you really get that upset that it exists? That could certainly depend on your preparedness for "In the A", one of a couple tracks on Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors that are meant to remind you that Big Boi is still in strip clubs. The verses from Big, T.I. and Ludacris will easily remind you of some of the exciting collaborations between Atlanta's new crop and Big Boi in the early 2000s, especially since the Showdown/DJ Aries/BlackOwned C-Bone produced beat sounds just like the sort of beat you'd find in those days. Its intentional datedness -- right down to a Ludacris verse that amazes you he's proud of any of the solo work he's done the past two or three years -- can be jarring on an album that so often wears its eagerness on its sleeve just to surprise you. By virtue of simply feeling old and being specific, "In the A" tends to be the strangest in a series of strange experiences on the disc.
"Thom Pettie", the other 808-centered track, features Little Dragon and Killer Mike, yet it somehow falls way short of its peer. Despite a vicious, fairly intimidating atmosphere provided by Chris Carmouche and Big Boi's production (the pair receive credit on nine of 17 tracks) there's something about the chopped & screwed chorus of "Tom Petty that ho" repeated over and over is just so blah. Who cares? The song just sounds mean for two-thirds of it, and Little Dragon's fun parts feel like they should get the chance to break free and become their own song. Its inclusion is especially odd when you consider "Gossip", featuring UGK and Big K.R.I.T., is stranded on the deluxe edition when it would have been a much better choice for the regular version. It's easy to quickly sound like a broken record when discussing Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, nitpicking these things and those things.
I much prefer stuff that feels at home with itself, that flows smooth and has a sense of purpose. Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is much more compilation than album album, more than any of Big Boi's solo efforts to date. But as strongly as my gut says this is not that great an album, my heart and my mind keep going back to Phantogram's hooks, and how fun most of this music is even as it feels weird to hear Big Boi hopping on top of them. Perhaps it's fair to say Big Boi turned Pitchfork's Selector series into an album concept, but I'm not sure it's fair to immediately dismiss that impulse. Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is for a decidedly niche audience, I'd wager, but that audience may just find that this is the future of rap music they want. And as rapper/indie collaborations go, it's hard to think of a rapper who could more comfortably and confidently try and sell what this album is to the people. Maybe it goes down in history as a flop in Big Boi's reservoir, or maybe it will be labeled a subtle tide change in the world of pop rap. Big Boi may have crashed a party in Brooklyn without invitation, but nobody got hurt. It just got a little weird.