erasing clouds

Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

reviewed by dave heaton

Outkast are continually forgiven their excesses because they continually produce moments of sheer brillance, songs that jump genres in a breathtaking ways. Each Outkast album to date has had songs that seriously blow me away and songs that are, for lack of a better word, junk. But I suppose that's what you often get with artists that have ambition to spare. They're so into trying out new things that sometimes they get ahead of themselves.

Their latest album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is actually two solo albums packaged as one album, perhaps to keep the duo together for the future, so each can do his own thing without worrying that one will succeed while the other won't. It's clear from even a cursory listen to Big Boi's half, Speakerboxxx or Andre 3000's half, The Love Below, that Andre was the one who truly wanted to push his music outside of the confines of Outkast. Yet it's somehow fitting to the legacy of Outkast that the one who tries hardest to do something different ends up trying a bit too hard, while the album that on its surface sounds too typical of Outkast's past efforts is on the whole the more successful of the two.

Big Boi's Speakerboxxx is a Funkadelic-drenched hip-hop album with fresh beats, nimble rhymes and a heavy dose of off-kilter soul. With guest appearances from Big Gipp, Ludacris, Killer Mike, Cee-Lo, Khujo Goodie, Slimm Calhoun, and more, it's something of a Southern-fried hip-hop block party. Yet Big Boi also offers moments of true heart-baring introspection and a bit of timely political commentary, giving the album additional weight behind the stylish sound and on-fire rhymes. If the album sometimes sound like a typical Outkast album minus Andre 3000 (though he does help with the beats here and there), it feels in no way incomplete or inferior because of his absence. In a way it's one of the most stream-lined Outkast CDs yet. Few skits or playing around; all of the funk, no junk.

"Hey Ya," the first single from Andre 3000's The Love Below is one of the most infectious Outkast songs ever, a delightfully weird song that falls in and out of almost any genre you can think of: R&B, rock, gospel, funk, hip-hop. The level of confidence and playful experimentation of that song only shows up on The Love Below in brief moments, though the entire album is Andre's attempt to showcase musical interests and talents that don't usually appear on an Outkast album. With Andre only rapping on a couple songs (and even then, not that remarkably), The Love Below finds Andre 3000 placing himself along the continuum of R&B balladeers and sexed-up funksters. The album is essentially a commentary on love in all its forms, and ends with the confessional "A Day in the Life of Andre Benjamin (Incomplete)", an analysis of how his own love relationships have succeeded or failed.

The Love Below opens with a couple songs that put Andre as some sort of off-the-wall jazz crooner; an interesting switch that would work better if Andre was a better singer. Most of the rest of the album finds him in serious Prince mode; in fact, on ballads like "Pink & Blue" (co-written with R. Kelly) and funk workouts like "She Lives In My Lap," he sounds so much like a Prince wannabe that more than anything else the album starts to resemble another eccentric's exercise in Prince workship, Beck's Midnight Vultures. Marred by quite a collection of unfunny skits and too many songs that sound familiar where they're trying to sound new, The Love Below is not quite a disaster, more like an interesting failure. The two albums taken together show Outkast to be a creative streamroller going off in all sorts of directions, some more interesting than others.

{Album out now on Arista Records}

Issue 16, October 2003

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