Reinventing hip-hop is hard work. And yet it must be done, if for no other reason than to repromote the idea that it's been reinvented. Again.
Come in, God.
Damn, you're a girl.
-- André 3000, "God (Interlude)"
And why in the fuck did Daniel Pearl have to pay the price for his life and his wife plead twice?
-- Antwan (Big Boi), "War"
It feels like they're looking into hip-hop's future, and it's a rush to realize that it's happening right here, right now.
-- Scott T. Sterling, "Grown Folks' Business" (URB Sep 2003)
Reinventing hip-hop is hard work. And yet it must be done, if for no other reason than to repromote the idea that it's been reinvented. Again. Once more attended by prodigious hype, OutKast's latest release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, right here, right now, would do well to be even half as good as everyone apparently needs it to be. And what a relief: with an eye toward the constant shifting of hip-hop's relations to funk and pop, history and politics, the duo rejiggers the whole business one more time, with a two CD set that is imperfect and ambitious, sometimes startling and always smart.
Picture this: Eight André 3000s, performing on an Ed Sullivan throwback stage, dressed in coordinated Kelly green costumes, smiling for screaming girls with Polaroid cameras. He's a pop star, he's a drummer, he's a set of three back-up singers dressed like lawn jockeys, the crowd is mad for them. And picture this too: One Antwan (Big Boi) Patton, binoculars in hand, scoping a prototypical African savannah, surrounded by long-legged girls stepping through the grass like giraffes. Southern Player appreciates the scenery as Sleepy Brown croons, "I love the way you move."
Provocative (and plain weird), these images introduce essential themes in the double CD (two solo albums packaged for single sale) explores two essential concepts: looking and being looked at. André, like his many models -- from Prince to Sly Stone to Fred Astaire -- is all spectacular spectacle, loving your look as he works out what it means to love. Antwan, while hardly opposite (he's got the great plaid suit going on), positions himself as shrewd spectator: as he told one CNN interviewer, he sees his work on Speakerboxxx as similar to her own: observing and reporting. Intertwining and interrelated, each brings a new perspective on the other.
Dropping at number one on the charts (selling some 510,000 units in the first week, half that again the second), the CDs lean back and push forward at the same time. Like other OutKast records, they are about movement, over time and through space. Speed and simultaneity: honestly, sometimes it's just hard to keep up. That's not to say that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below moves in one direction, or even wholly smoothly. Instead, it lurches and leaps, with mad respect paid to all manner of evolution. In "Behold a Lady", André sings, "Today I might snow, tomorrow I'll rain, / 3000's always changing, but you stay the same. / And I need that, hey I need that (in my life)." Grateful to perceive the very constancy that eludes him, he can extol his own motion while lamenting that, as time persists, "Sad, but one day our kids will have to visit museums / To see what a lady looks like."
In the face of loss, change fuels desire and encourages recovery. "Ready for action, nip it in the bud, / We never relaxin, OutKast is everlastin' / Not clashin', not at all, / But see my nigga went to do a little actin'." Antwan's familiar Southern-speed rap in the first single off Speakerboxx, the thrilling "The Way You Move". Get it: there's no trouble at home, just brotherly love and mutual appreciation. Lush and swank, the track features trumpets (as does much of the album), alongside a sweet, swaying guitar and sturdy bass. The video illustrates the shifting moods, beginning in an auto garage, where big bootied girls change tires, check under hoods, strut in hotpants for low angled cameras: "I don't have much time," announces the boss lady, cars are in need of service. Antwan appears in his loudest plaid jacket, and the song commences: "We tappin' right into your memory banks, thanks! / So click-it-or-ticket, let's see your seat belt fastened. / Trunk rattlin', like two midgets in the backseat rasslin' / Speakerboxxx vibrate the tag."
The scene cuts among displays: the well-populated garage, a coliseum-looking dance hall, that savannah where near-naked, "wild" girls amble for Big Boi's point-of-view binocular vision. "You light me, and excite me," offers hookmaster Sleepy Brown: time may be short, but desire is long, and more than willing. The album's first track, "GhettoMusick", written by Dre and bumping with get-up noise, challenges hip-hop's current norming of ghetto roots (claim realness by getting out of the projects and back into trouble): "He from the dirt, now here come the paranoia, / Although you couldn't have jacked the disrespect." Sampling from Patti LaBelle ("I just want you to know how I feel"), the song reflects on the meanings of surfaces and the values of communication. Or again, on "Church", against a rousing gospel chorus, Antwan urges care and repentance: "Talk to the coach or break out the huddle, / Whatever. Should you fumble, your rebuttal should be subtle, / Cause he who lives in the upper room is never gullible."
Produced by Antwan, Mr. DJ, Carl Mo, and André, much of Speakerboxxx resembles other hip-hop records, down to the big-deal guests (Ludacris, a lazy Jay-Z, Killer Mike, Cee-Lo and Khujo Goodie, as well as Antwan's three-year-old son, Bamboo, who appears in an "Interlude", ready, he says, "to do rap", that is, a baby-cover of "The Whole World" (when Bamboo says he wants to do Michael Jackson next, daddy schools him: "Not on my record, you ain't doing no Michael Jackson"). Luda's contribution, on "Tomb of the Boom", is cleverest of the guests ("Y'all driving Subarus, stuck in your cubicles, / I'm stuck in the air with weed crumbs under my cuticles"), but Antwan just has ideas for days (and still more ruminations on football): "Should I take the three point field goal for the score? / Or should I roll around and take / The ball up the middle, up the gut, the what? / The hole, cranium overload, overthrowed. / Now we got seven more points on the board, fa sho."
On "War", Antwan lays out his version of CNN: "I refuse to sit in the backseat and get handled / Like I do nothin' all day but sit around, watch the Cartoon Channel. / I rap about the Presidential election and the scandal that followed, / And we all watched the nation, as it swallowed and chalked it up. / Basically, America you got fucked, / The media shucked and jived, now we stuck: damn!" Though he's looking hard at the world around him, Antwan isn't offering a means to get unstuck; still, the critique is welcome, as OutKast and hip-hop activists get down to the business of engaging change.
Also about change, but in a more intimate sense, The Love Below is the roundabout result of a movie soundtrack that lost its movie. (In "Love in War", for instance, he muses, "These ain't the times to be alone, cliché, the end is near / Cliché, the end is near, / Cliché, the end is / Quickly approaching while we carry on.") Initiated as André's solo project, the CD turned into constructive inspiration for Antwan's own CD. The first track, "Love Hater", swings into action, with lush coordination of piano-guitar-high-hat and lyrics as cautionary as they are celebratory: "Everybody needs a glass of water today / To chase the hate away." By way of jumpstarting the festivities to come, he imagines preparations ("You know you've got company comin' over. / You scrub extra-hard" before he cuts loose with the point: "And everybody needs somebody to love, / Before it's too late, / It's too laaaaate, oh. / Don't nobody wanna grow old alone!" Love is about the fear of being alone, the rush headlong. You must love love.
"Cupid Valentine", as André calls himself on "Happy Valentine's Day", urges loving love at least for the moment, when fluids flourish and eyes burn, as they say, bright. (For "Pink & Blue", he sings -- following a scratch sample of "Age ain't nothin' but a number" -- "You could have been born a little later, but I don't care. / So what if your head sports a couple of gray hairs? / Same here, and actually I think that's funky / [In a Claire Huxtable type way].") For André (as you know), love forever, for ever ever, that's a test, and disquieting. Rosario Dawson (recalling her scariest, He Got Game-iest incarnation) introduces "She Lives in My Lap", threatening and soliciting: "What's wrong? What are you afraid of? / The Love Below." And above and all around. "She lives in my lap," sings Andre, "Forever my fiancée" (that is, never the wife, always the adoring, anticipating wife to be -- sorry, Ms. Jackson).
The CD includes a drum'n'bass cover of "My Favorite Things", by way of transition between "Dracula's Wedding" (with Kelis, who sings, so pleasingly, "Give me the chance to dance romance. / Don't run, I'm not the sun. / So much at stake . . . oh!") and "Baby Take Off Your Cool" (with Norah Jones: "Baby, take off your cool, / I want to get to know you" -- she's never sounded so cool, frankly).
Even the interludes do work on this album (this from someone with little patience for filler-skits). "Good Day, Good Sir" features a two-character exchange of the "Who's on first?" variety, with each trying to decipher the other's identity. Mr. Bentley Farnsworth, a fiddler ("on the fuckin' roof") is questioned by a passer-by, who observes that he looks "fine." Fantastically well I am, certainly not Fine by far, but you could say I'm close to spectacular." When asked what he means, Farnsworth exclaims, "Open your eyes: spectacular's right in front of you." Fine, it turns out, is on her way over. And beauty -- fineness, fantastic wellness, or even spectacularity -- is in the eye of the beholder.
Like Prince (to whom he has often been compared, and who has conjured his own grand concept-soundtrack albums [Batman and Girl 6]), André understands lust and appreciates the humor of sex, he embraces bodies and beats, comprehending their continuity, welcoming their comedy. The back of the CD features a photo of André with a bracelet of pearls and smoking pink gun (recalling, yet again, Prince in his "Sexy MF" phase), the front has him posed in brilliant red plaid under the Eiffel Tower. "Hey Ya!", The Love Below's brilliantly rousing first single, is a rush about romance at its poppiest, sweetest, and most enthralling: "My baby don't mess around / Because she loves me so," it begins. "And this I know fo shooo . . . / Uh, But does she really wanna? / But can't stand to see me / Walk out the dooo . . ." Laced through with contradictions and fantasies, hopes and losses, the track pulses with pleasure and doubt reconsideration (and the pleasure of doubt).
Here as elsewhere, André (the persona, the mirror image) swaggers and swoons at once, spazzy with electrifying multiplicity. Indeed, the Bryan Barber video for "Hey Ya!" evokes but also changes up the Beatles when they first appeared on U.S. TV. Introduced by "manager" Antwan ("This is hope money," he warns, "I hope you get out there and do your thing. Don't mess it up for everybody"), the video features an eight-man act, all individuals played by André: acoustic guitarist Johnny Vulture; a backup trio called the Love Haters; bassist Possum Jenkins, with white go-go hat; striped-tied keyboardist Benjamin Andre; shirtless drummer Dookie Blasingame; and vivacious lead singer Ice Cold 3000. Girls shriek and snap Polaroids, vintage TV monitors reproduce and refract the show, all the layers suggesting the complications of pop cultured music -- by creators and consumers alike. The song is unstoppable ("Lend me some sugar," he cries, "I am your neighbor!" just before name-checking Beyoncé and Lucy Liu), the love self-perpetuating. "Now what's cooler than bein' cool?"
While André doesn't protest so much as his partner concerning the group's long-rumored, ever-imminent breakup, he also spends so much time looking at himself, and imagining others looking at him, that the CDs speak to one another as if from slightly skewed angles. Their differences are telling and energizing; like motivating mirrors for one another, they provide frames through which the artists can see and be seen. Incorrigible rummagers and rearrangers, OutKast comes together and apart in ways that are, as yet, relentlessly inventive. You can't hardly look away. "Shake it like a Polaroid picture," sings André/Ice Cold 3000 at the end of "Hey Ya!" It -- whatever you want it to be -- comes into focus as you look, simultaneously rewarding your gaze and making you want more.