What makes a true band, anyway? A band builds an unfaltering following. A band changes with time, but not necessarily because of the times. A band is versatile. A band’s members are unique. A band keeps you on the edge of your seat, and hopefully gets you out of your seat, loitering outside the record store hoping for what never happens in the music industry, for something like nothing you’ve ever heard before–
“Hey Ya!” was like nothing I’d ever heard before. There was that addictive guitar strumming, reminiscent of ’70s classic rock greats, drums from every ’60s one-hit-wonder, staccato notes from that 1980-something keyboard, and that captivating voice. My head was spinning: what rock did this hottest of hot new joints crawl from under? Where had Outkast been? How would the public react? And where was Dre’s partner in rhyme, the aqua- in the “Aquemini,” Big Boi?
The answer was Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the sixth edition to your Outkast collection, a double album consisting of a solo project from both Andre 3000 and Big Boi, who began changing the game in 1994 while still in high school with the hip-hop classic, “Players’ Ball”.
I listened to “The Love Below” first, more nervous about the prospect of Dre as a soloist than anxious about the band’s return. But Andre was about the most personal an artist can get without scaring away listeners. Each track consists of some sexual exploration, and even the interludes are worth listening to. The songs range in seriousness, from “God” where he exclaims, “Damn, you’re a girl!” to “Roses” and its assertions about groupies and haters. There is a Prince-like vibe, though slightly more playful and less freaky. The disc hits it peak midway through with “Hey Ya!”
The disc ends with several tracks that seriously stretch the boundaries of hip-hop, including a rendition of “My Favorite Things” that would make all the jazz greats melt. It is this fusion that makes “The Love Below” a true work of art: a medley of beats and sounds that cannot be linked to one genre or another, enigmatic and electrifying. Finally, “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre” offers a memoir-like account of his life, and is appropriately unfinished.
Big Boi has a tough act to follow; after all, he doesn’t sing, and the music he employs is limited to what can be rhymed to. “GhettoMusick”, however, reveals Big Boi’s versatility. Instead of the usual simple repetitive hooks, he raps at blitzing speeds to the almost techno-like “booty music,” a treacherous feat for any lyricist. But Speakerboxxx contains much more than lyrical prowess. Big Boi spends ample time expressing his own personal and political ponderings, from “War” and “Church” to “Reset,” a familiar and welcome stream of consciousness.
“The Way You Move” provides listeners with a classic Outkast single, a bouncy, southern-inspired number that moves in and out of a Frankie Beverlyish hook sung by Sleepy Brown. The album is not without guest appearances, but even the likes of Jay-Z and Ludacris are not enough to call Big Boi’s independence into question.
Outkast accomplishes what many groups are incapable of: presenting strikingly different styles that simultaneously compliment each other. Is Speakerboxxx/The Love Below a sign of Andre and Big Boi growing apart? Quite the contrary. Each artist reaches higher in his respective realm and needs an entire album to fully express himself. They only appear fleetingly on each other’s discs, but they represent a sort of yin and yang of hip-hop, and it’s safe to say that one cannot exist without the other.