October 2, 2003

Outkast: Multiple Personality Disorder

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Speakerboxxx/The Love Down Below, the fifth album from eclectic Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast is the natural progression of the group’s split personality: two albums made individually but packaged together under the Outkast heading. To the surprise of critics and music lovers alike, the experiment is a resounding success, an inventive and eccentric record that defies classification. The combination is a bizarre blend of Rap, Soul, Funk, Gospel, Techno, and nearly every other musical genre. The album stands apart from any other I own. Even more surprising is the balance between the two. I had originally thought to give a rating of four towers to Speakerboxxx, Big Boi’s offering, and five to The Love Down Below, from Andre 3000, but on review, I realized that the true value of both is when they are combined. Additionally, they are much closer in quality than apparent at first listening. As expected, Andre’s record reaches far past the horizon of contemporary hip-hop, but surprisingly Big Boi is not far behind. When listened to successively, the combination hits the same perfect balance of previous efforts while defying convention at every opportunity.

I admit I was skeptical when I first heard the premise. To me, Outkast has always been about perfect harmony between the Dre and Big Boi, each bringing his individual flavor but sharing the same mindset. That bond has always preserved the group’s uniqueness among the many hip-hop and neo-soul acts that sound all too similar. But rather than straying from those roots, this album channels that energy into something completely new, but still recognizable: a distinctive sound that is still unmistakably Outkast.

The Love Down Below is Andre 3000 at his most open and unapologetic as he is literally and figuratively naked throughout the disc, much like the women on the cover of every Outkast CD. If this record is him stripped to the core, then his essence is focused on one thing: booty. On “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he delivers a monologue over the infectious beat for two-thirds of the track before bursting into rhyme with: “Got a sweet lil’ darling off in my corner/ Below I know I want her but act like, I don’t want her/ Surrounded by the lovely but yet feel like a loner/ Could be an organ donor the way I give up my heart.” The next track, “Spread” finds him continuing, “I’ve got an eye out for she who cries out passionately/ We’ll do things backwardly, forwardly, horizontally/ I’m too young to be settling down, quick to change my mind/ So now can I borrow your timid torso.” The beats sample from every corner of the musical atlas, but if there is one failing in The Love, it’s that too often Andre is content to croon in his falsetto instead of putting his formidable lyrical skill to work. The first single “She Lives In My Lap” is one of my least favorite songs, but next track “Hey Ya,” more than makes up for it, with an effusive background that can’t help but move feet when it comes on.

Finished several months prior to The Love Down Below, Speakerboxxx is more of a hip-hop album, but by no means conventional. The opening track, “Ghetto Musick” moves at a breakneck pace, and Big Boi maintains that momentum through “The Way You Move,” a combination of rapid-fire rhymes and a smooth chorus that has been the first single to hit radio. “The Rooster” follows the break-up of a relationship, the minor key emphasizing the downbeat nature of the lyrics, but complementing the jazz trumpet in the background. The album has a few more questionable tracks, such as the collaboration with Jay-Z and Killer Mike titled “Hip Hop Rock,” but on the whole flows well and lives up to Big Boi’s legacy as the soulful thug star of 1996’s Aquemini.

Taken separately, these are solid if somewhat confusing records. It is in combining them that the listener can appreciate the genius: their split personality manifests itself into separate entities and still manages to produce two albums that deserve the Outkast moniker. Their continued willingness to eschew commercial appeal in favor of a more progressive sound puts them on the same level as rock and pop groups such as Radiohead, with a devout fan following. This album is not a departure, but the next step in the evolution of the

group. Nevertheless, questions remain about the future, what is the next step after two separate albums? Like many, I would love to hear a return to more traditional hip-hop in the next record, but I realize the odds of Outkast going backwards are about the same as Thom Yorke declaring “Creep” his favorite song to play. I guess we’ll just have to wait for them to surprise us one more time.

Archived article by Gautham Nagesh