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Speakerboxxx / The Love Below

Release Date: 09.23.03
Record label: Arista
Genre(s): Rap, Hip-Hop, R&B, etc.


The Poet and the Player Make Their Big Fat Glorious Messes
by: matt cibula

How you feel about this double-solo-album project from André Benjamin and Antwan Patton will have a lot to do with how you feel about messes. Some people like a nice tidy world, with everything in its place, all the tools hung up in the right place, never miss the flashlight when the power goes out, etc. Those people should just start running from The Love Below/Speakerboxxx now, and never ever look back.

Because yeah, this is a mess, 39 tracks (sorry, traxxx) and almost 146 minutes of music, hugely self-indulgent and strange, unfocused and undisciplined, all over the board. Both try too hard, both take too-obvious shots at "conventional" hip-hop wisdom, and both seem to be feeling their way tentatively at times, as opposed to the boldly confident critic's darling Stankonia. This release is the anti-Stankonia: shambling, rambling, dripping all over with excess and showoffery and MESS.

But I like mess. I got bored with Stankonia after a few months because I thought it TOO confident in its formula, so much so that the typical OutKast internal tension (Dré as the spacey lover man, Boi as the hardcore realist) turned into contradiction in an unnecessary and pandering way—how sensitive to "Ms. Jackson"'s daughter are you really when you're talking about your dick being in her friend's mouth? Even a prime avant-banger like "Bombs Over Baghdad" seemed too nice, too clean for me.

And there's no way this qualifies as that. The Love Below, André 3000's disc, is the big offender on this score; it worships the P.Funk and the Prince funk and the indie rock and the drum'n'bass and the Broadway ballad, no two tracks sound anywhere like each other in the least. The other disc, Big Boi's Speakerboxxx, runs more than 20 minutes shorter, but manages to essay straight-up hip-hop, smooth soul with rapping, rock with rapping, gospel with rapping, songs with horns and strings and hella guest appearances, wild, out of control, messy like a two-year-old.

And, at times, it's brilliant, like a picture fingerpainted by the two-year-old Basquiat. I love the first two singles, which couldn’t really be more different: 3000's "Hey Ya" has been compared to Frank Black, rightly, but is actually a lot more like Cody ChesnuTT with some serious production values happening—it's fun and light and horny and bouncy, a nice frothy summer song with tossed-off asides like "Don't want to meet your daddy / Just want you in my Caddy" and lyrics celebrating the ephemeralities of the pompatus of love. Big Boi's entry, which is on MTVJams every six minutes, is the smoothed-out "I Love the Way You Move," a delicious r&b hip-hop song, celebrating the beat of the 808 and the way it makes big women dance, horn section icing on the top like the hand of God. If each of them had made their albums exactly like these songs, everyone would be happy.

Except those of us who like messy things, which, I think, also includes OutKast. The Love Below marks André Benjamin forever as one of the great overreachers of our time. He takes on every kind of music he loves and is able to produce at least an inspired pastiche of each of them: jazzy ballads, slow jams, nerdy jams, the aforementioned drum'n'bass (a very Coltranean take on "My Favorite Things"), ripping off three different periods of Prince Rogers Nelson, etc. Lyrically, too, it's all about the extreme: hyper-romanticism ("I hope that you're the one / If not, you are the prototype"), hyper-sincerity ("She's Alive," which tells the story of how his mother sacrificed for him by using her own recorded words as verses), hyper-meanness ("Caroline" is the most misogynistic song on either album, with its repeated hissing of "Bitch"), hyper-drama ("Dracula's Wedding" with Kelis). He's hyper-everything!

Sure, that hyper-osity works against him somewhat, on slightly failed tracks like "Roses" and "She Lives in My Lap," and flameouts like the achingly autobiographical closer "A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete)," where he draws us into his life and his world and then drops us flat before even explaining what's happened to him post-Badu. But who cares? Don't hate on a brother for being a bit hyper. And don't hate Big Boi for doing what everyone thought he'd do: bring the hip-hop hard but with some switchups. Speakerboxxx is by far the most consistent of the two. When he wants to aim at the current status quo, he does it real with songs like the pimpy "Bowtie" and the Dirty bounce "Last Call." But when he wants to expand his parameters, he can bust complex uptempo techno stuff like the Killer Mike/Jay-Z collab "Flip-Flop Rock" or the inspirational jam "Church."

I find Boi's flow much less anti-woman now that he's not being put up against all André's "modern guy/freak" thing—in fact, his whole lyrical attack is very much on point. There is nothing wrong with "War" and its hardcore social protests: "Politicians, modern day magicians, physicians of death / More healthcare for poor health / Who makin' us ill?", and absolutely nothing wrong with the way his voice slides inbetween the syncopated horns and organs and weird chicken samples of "The Rooster." He sounds, if anything, freer than his compatriot; no longer does he have to represent the interests of all "players" in the band as opposed to André's "poet" persona. This makes his own (quite poetic) rapping style even more confident, and drives home his lyrics like never before.

But yeah, it's messy and kinda hit-and-miss sometimes, and not all the tracks are going to grab you at once. But that, you see, is exactly what they wanted. OutKast has always been about busting out of pre-determined roles, and has taken pride in their iconoclasticism. This seems like the ultimate expression of those impulses, and it sounds great and ridiculous at the same time, and it's fascinating to learn so much about two very different but very similar men all at once.

So take your time with this one. Don't try to absorb the whole thing at once or it'll get all over you. Just listen, and then keep listening. It won't be a chore, believe me. And bring extra napkins to clean up all that mess, will ya? 26-Sep-2003 9:45 AM