OutKast’s Big Boi sees the sharks circling, sniffing for blood. On “Tomb of the Boom,” from his half of the duo’s new album, 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.’ “
When OutKast first hit in the early Nineties, they were like-minded neighborhood intellectuals, and the most creative, if often unlikely, pairing in rap — a street-savvy hustler (Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) and a poet on a perpetual mission of self-discovery (Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin). The tag-team rhyming and easy-Sunday soul of their 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, showed that Southern hip-hop could be more than booty talk and rote gangsterism. In time, though, the seams that held them together began to fray. 1998’s aquatic-funk attack Aquemini was their first masterpiece, but it was also the first time Big Boi and Andre felt palpably out of step, with flamboyant risk-taker Dre sitting out a couple of his partner’s rougher numbers. By the time of 2000’s whip-smart Stankonia, the most expansive and promising black pop record of the last decade, Big Boi had taken a big artistic leap forward, only to find that Dre was practically off the map. There they are on the album’s back cover: Big Boi defiant in a Cubs throwback jersey and a mild blowout Afro, Andre in Hendrix head wrap and bandleader uniform, laughing at a joke it’s likely no one else in the room — or the world, for that matter — hears.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, their fifth album, is as divided as its title: two separate discs — the former by Big Boi, the latter by Dre — packaged together. On Speakerboxxx, Big Boi continues exploring the future-crunk OutKast perfected on Stankonia — bubbling psych-soul on the politically minded “War,” minimalist 808 electro on the outstanding “The Way You Move.” Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Speakerboxxx‘s best beats are Andre’s: “Ghetto Musick” resembles the fight song of an Afro-psychedelic superhero, and “Last Call” is punctuated with maniacally stabbing horns and what sounds like a theremin gone wild. But Speakerboxxx doesn’t quite achieve the transcendence of Stankonia — the hooks aren’t there, and neither is their earlier albums’ sense of risk and possibility.
Andre’s The Love Below, on the other hand, is all about disorder. Below wants to be Prince’s Lovesexy, but even more unhinged. He almost exclusively sings, often in falsetto (“Love Hater”), occasionally like an eight-year-old at a family holiday party (“She’s Alive”). On the beguiling “Hey Ya!” he yaps like an indie-rock Little Richard over a breezy Abbey Road arrangement. Sometimes Andre’s sonic guesswork is genius — he holds his own alongside Norah Jones on the lithe duet “Take Off Your Cool” (and plays guitar to boot) — but not all the accidents on The Love Below are happy. Often Andre sounds like he’s trying to make an album that’s more eccentric than he actually is — and that’s saying a lot.
Each of these albums is as noteworthy for what’s missing as for what’s there. Big Boi is trying to shoulder the burden of OutKast on Speakerboxxx — to essentially re-create the group on his own. With The Love Below, Andre 3000 has packed up what he wanted to keep from the group (the right to be peculiar in a hip-hop context), slung it over his shoulder and headed out toward parts unknown. “Today I might snow/Tomorrow I’ll rain,” Andre croons on “Behold a Lady.” “3000 is always changing/But you stay the same.”