September 28, 2006

Outkast Gets Cinematic

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“All the fresh styles always start off as a good little hood thing … look at blues, rock, jazz, rap. I’m not even talkin’ about music—everything else too. By the time it reach Hollywood, it’s over. But it’s cool—we just keep it goin’ and make new shit.”
As Andre 3000 announces on “Hollywood Divorce,” a reflexively critical track on the new Idlewild, something’s not totally right about Outkast making a movie. It’s easy to see this kind of thing as just a cynical marketing tactic, which it is. It’s been a long road from hip-hop’s origins as an urban, postmodern oral culture, a cry of revolt against consumerism, to a mainstream form that by now inspires a movie every couple years.
At the same time, the pop star vanity film has a rich tradition, yielding some great moments in American culture: from Elvis’ countless James Dean imitations, to the Beatles’ charming A Hard Day’s Night, to Prince’s eccentric Purple Rain, to Kid ‘N’ Play’s hilarious House Party, to Eminem’s introspective 8 Mile, pop music films at their best are a unique fusion of camp, melodrama, cultural analysis, and great soundtracks. And it’s the soundtrack that’s in question here; unless you have better black market connections than this writer, you haven’t been able to see this limited-release film.
André 3000 has admitted in interviews that many these songs weren’t written until filming was well underway, and it sounds like it. The narrative flow seems to adhere to a plot not fully established on the disc, while snippets of dialogue pop up throughout. But needless to say, André and Big Boi do not mess around—or at least not much: the music here is consistently surprising and rewarding.
Outkast stick to the roles they self-consciously established for themselves on Aquemini: Dre as the sensitive-new-age-guy-who-still-knows-a-ho-when-he-sees-one, and Big Boi as the gangsta-with-a-heart-of-gold. Much has been made of how the music here is less collaborative than a collection of tracks by each individual member, but frankly that’s nothing to complain about. These complaints are typically accompanied by comparisons to the Beatles, overlooking the fact that the Beatles put out great music well after John and Paul quit writing together.
In fact, this album resembles late-sixties Beatles’ albums in its time-traveling eclecticism—“N2U” even features great British Invasion harmonies around hard rap verses. From the Delta hip-hop of “Idlewild Blue,” which rocks like Howlin’ Wolf’s rockin’ chair, to Cotton Club R&B on “Life is Like a Musical” and “PJ and Rooster,” to the gospel redemption of “Mutron Angel,” to the actually affecting power-balladry of “The Train,” there are some serious jams on this album. Pointed social commentary is anachronistically sprinkled through the typically clever lyrics. What this album needed was an editor, to remove the intermittent pointless skits (disappointing after the inventive interludes on previous Outkast joints) and clip the last few songs off — we didn’t buy an Outkast record for show tune pastiches and long-ass guitar solos.
Outkast are certainly aware that the radical mainstream they have created since 2000’s breakthrough Stankonia makes them the hip-hop equivalent to their acknowledged influences the Beatles, and they heard when everyone compared Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to The White Album. In a way, Idlewild seems like a provocation from André and Big Boi, defying us further to locate them in the tradition of their rock predecessors, at the same time as they place themselves in an African-American pop tradition extending back as far as Cab Calloway, whose 1931 “Minnie the Moocher” provides the hook of the swinging single “The Mighty O”—the only song here that really seems like a joint effort.
But traditions are a tricky business. June’s Vibe made the claim that Outkast is “hip-hop’s greatest group,” while hipper rock critics, like Slate’s Sasha Frere-Jones, have been slyly suggesting for years that Outkast is really “America’s greatest rock band.” The latter assertion seems reasonable—what rock band today thrashes as hard as “B.O.B.” or jangles as sweetly as “Hey Ya,” or understands the blues like these guys clearly do? — but is questionable for the tacit assumption that “rock” and “band” are somehow better than “hip-hop” and “group.”
There is some credibility to the line spewed by reactionaries since the advent of hip-hop twenty years ago, that the genre has decimated artistic ethics of the autonomy of media and the originality of the author. The squares were only wrong in thinking this was a degeneration; really, “rock” and “band” have been exposed as anachronistic terminology.
Like any good revolution, hip-hop was far from unprecedented. Its innovations simply force us to reevaluate history, to recognize that plagiarism and media-mixing have always been present in the best music, but were repressed by Western consumer culture’s insistence on fragmenting social activity and its consequent lust for heroic individuals. So an Outkast movie makes perfect sense, really, blurring the line between their established artistic expansiveness and commercial excursions like Big Boi’s dog kennel and energy drink companies.
Nonetheless, André is quite right to point out that once capitalist industry can incorporate a cultural form into market plurality, it’s time to move on. Idlewild is not the “new shit” André 3000 prophesizes on “Hollywood Divorce”; it is the sound of two conscientious artistic producers trying to figure out what the new shit is going to be by exploring where it’s gonna be coming from. It’s the sound of two masters who know they aren’t coming up with anything earth-shaking this time around, but know it’s better than doing nothing.