The world's biggest pop group makes an album about breaking up. It becomes a staggeringly popular crossover hit, winning them so many new fans they have no choice but to forget the solo careers and carry on together. So they come out with a new record where they barely appear on each other's tracks, recorded mostly in separate studios. And just to show they haven't sold out, the next single is a commercial-suicide showcase for a college marching band. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Fleetwood Mac!
Like the Mac circa Tusk, OutKast respond to the pressures of megastardom with their weirdest music yet. "Morris Brown" might feature the tubas and trombones of the Morris Brown College Band, but it is irresistible — just like Tusk, which went to Number One in spite of itself. On Idlewild, Andre "3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton are on different wavelengths, but they're wild idols, two of the most brilliantly warped music minds we've got, the most unpredictable pop duo since Prince and himself. Last time out, they packaged their two solo joints together to create Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and you know what happened next: Your mom liked "Hey Ya!" even more than you did. So when Andre says, "Divorce is not an option, and prenuptial is void," in "Mighty O," he's probably talking about the group. He's stuck with Big Boi the way he's stuck with Ms. Jackson's daughter — they made something major together, and now the dream is gone but the baby is real. They meet up for only four of Idlewild's twenty-five tracks, but it still sounds like the burden of sharing OutKast brings out the fire in their music, by forcing them to try and top each other.
Idlewild is anything but a safe follow-up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The premise is Prince's Parade, one of his nuttiest and best Eighties albums, chronicling his imaginary life as a 1920s European dandy, as in the movie Under the Cherry Moon. Like Parade, Idlewild is a cinematic Jazz Age fantasy, with Dre and Big Boi at a Georgia speak-easy during Prohibition. The movie has Black History Month staples such as Cicely Tyson (Miss Jean Pittman, holla!) and Ben Vereen (Pippin's up in here!), but it's been on the shelf for nearly two years while OutKast finished the soundtrack. It was worth it, because Idlewild mixes up swing, blues, hip-hop and R&B without losing a step. "Morris Brown" is a typical highlight, with Earth, Wind and Fire-style vocals over the marching-band funk — it's so suave on the surface, it takes a few spins to absorb how radical it is.
"Mighty O" combines a 1980s one-note electro hook and a 1920s Cab Calloway singalong, with Dre and Big Boi rapping together for the first time since Stankonia. Dre tries acoustic blues in "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry 'Bout Me)" and Cotton Club jazz in "Call the Law," while tripping out in the low-end freak funk of "Chronomentrophobia," "Makes No Sense at All" and "Life Is Like a Musical." Snoop and Lil Wayne join in the dancehall-flavored show stopper "Hollywood Divorce," where Lil Wayne raps, "The hurricane come and took my Louisiana home/And all I got in return was a durn country song." Big Boi goes for smooth-operator soul in "Peaches," "N2U" and "BuggFace," and peaks with the melancholic R&B of "The Train," with Al Green-style Memphis horns. Dre and Big Boi unite for the Hendrix-downer finale, "A Bad Note," nearly nine minutes of maggot-brain guitar and gospel wails. With Big Boi gearing up for a solo tour and Dre trying to be a cartoon star, the OutKast group identity might be over, but together they turn their run-of-the-mill superstar alienation into the deeply eccentric richness of Idlewild. And like the Stones before them, they'll be OutKast all their lives.