Outkast just don’t make the same album twice. Instead, the genre-pushing hip hop act released two different albums at the same time.
The much-anticipated double album, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” gives the duo of Big Boi (Anton Patton) and Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin) the forum to stand on their own respective feet, making this release a pseudo-solo album for members of a band that is still together. This paradox works well, as each half has produced a fine album displaying the nuances of two different-yet-same performers.
With a nearly decades-old tradition of garnering critical and fan acclaim, the Atlanta-based group first made waves with its initial offering, 1994’s “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” (which spawned the hit “Player’s Ball”), creating much buzz about the so-called “third coast” of hip hop music – the Deep South. And, after having developed the geography of the South on “Southern.,” Outkast ventured into different sonic realms with the sci-fi funk of “ATLiens” (1996), the defiant yet homegrown “Aquemini” (1998) and turn-of-the-century hip hop on “Stankonia” (2000).
Now, three years later, the duo holds its throne as the most progressive rap group in the mainstream.
“Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” has an ambitious format, but Outkast pulls it off easily. The band takes its time in developing full albums instead of a handful of singles between filler. Besides that, only subtle differences exist between this offering and Outkast’s previous work. Surprising beats (such as “Spread”), modern-day Parliament funk (“She Lives in my Lap”), slick production from the state-of-the-art Stankonia studio and the clever wordplay Big Boi and Andre 3000 hold their ground.
“Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” is best appreciated as a way Big Boi and Andre 3000 can each maintain audience attention on their own and let their lyrical and musical personalities shine. On Big Boi’s “Speakerboxxx,” the man known as the playa half (of the often-repeated and simplified Outkast “playa and the poet” moniker) leaps from his pigeonhole. Take, for example, the infectious “The Way You Move,” which features Sleepy Brown channeling Sly and the Family Stone, or “GhettoMusick,” which warbles between the tempo equivalents of Ecstasy and Marijuana highs.
While Big Boi is still showing his aggression and swagger, there’s a thoughtfulness that permeates “Speakerboxxx” such as “Unhappy,” with its hook of “cuz your happiness is done and your goose is cooked.” To wit, here’s a man that is strutting solo down a sidewalk in musical neighborhoods he’s only driven past.
And, in “The Love Below,” we expect Andre 3000 to give us the unexpected (he does), in his half of this double feature. But whereas Big Boi has produced a hip hop album, Andre escapes virtually rap-free, offering an otherworldly pop album.
Blending everything from Kraftwerk beats to Frank Black vocals to James Brown yelps on first single “Hey Ya,” Andre is still miles ahead of his peers. “The Love Below” is a bumper-car ride of an album, with the Rat-Pack era “Love Hater” minutes away from synthetic booty-shaker “Spread,” and “Take Off Your Cool,” a duet with Norah Jones. There’s even a skit that plays off Oscar Wilde and Abott and Costello.
Amid rumors that this double album signals the end of Outkast, Big Boi tries to calm the sharks. In “Tomb of the Boom,” he raps, “They say, ‘Big Boi, can you pull it off without your nigga Dre?’/I say, ‘People, stop the madness, ’cause me and Dre be OK.'”
In fact, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” is a meiosis of Outkast, not a mitosis. Each half seems incomplete without the other, yet manages to showcase what makes it unique. It’s yin and yang, if you will.
If this cell division bothers you (and it shouldn’t), solve it by putting both halves in your CD player and hitting the shuffle button. Many fans, while adoring the group Outkast, identify more with Andre than Big Boi, or vice versa. This double album gives fans the chance to enjoy that fact, without offending the neglected half. Essentially, each album offers much to appreciate, and the balance that is Outkast remains, with no real star emerging, except for the music.