Speakerboxxx / The Love Below
re, a.k.a. Andre 3000, a.k.a. Andre Lauren Benjamin, says he’s run out of ways to express himself via hip hop. Big Boi, a.k.a. Antwan Andre Patton, says he hasn’t.
It’s difficult to comprehend just how much Outkast have done in the last ten years, and not just what they’ve done for hip hop. Because it’s no longer about just hip-hop, make no mistake. People think it was Stankonia that broadened horizons, that broke them into new creative ground, but all that (stupendous) album is, really, is a continuation of what they’d already started on their previous three records. If anything Aquemini is better than Stankonia, a more complete realisation of an aesthetic (and what an aesthetic!), more consistent, less indulgent, and just as loaded with wild hooks and genius rhymes. But anyway, I digress. This is all talk of the past. Outkast in 2003 are about the future.
Not that it looks very bright, because Speakerboxxx/The Love Below isn’t a double album according to any normal understanding of the concept. Rather Big Boi and Dre have delivered two distinct solo albums under the Outkast moniker, their union perhaps a cynical marketing push to increase sales, as post-split solo ventures by either half of the duo would be bound to flounder commercially. Seen together they remind me of two other bloated, career-crumbling epics; The Beatles’ eponymous white album and The Clash’s Sandinista!. The former is the work of four discontented individuals pulling a band apart at the seams as they pursue their own visions, while the latter is the sound of a supremely talented group believing their own hype, the end product resultantly distended and foolishly ambitious. Despite Big Boi’s protestation that Outkast “ain’t no uno / we a duo” Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, at 39 tracks and 140 minutes, could be said to suffer from the ills of both.
Seen separately, Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is an album of progressive, p-funk influenced southern hip hop, a continuation of the Atliens, Aquemini, Stankonia sequence, perhaps lacking the unpredictable synergistic spark of previous albums but still classy, funky and hook-laden. The Love Below, unsurprisingly, is a different beast altogether, Dre’s frustration with the limitations of hip hop driving him into wide new sonic territories, a semi-concept album in debt to Prince, Coltrane, D’Angelo and Frank Black. So far, so (un)predictable. It will come as no surprise either to learn that Big Boi’s disc is the more consistent of the two, or that Dre’s is the most inspired.
Taken together, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a series of spectacular moments and memorable events. In an album of this size and breadth the highlights become all the more important, emerging like beacons of quality in a fog of filler. And what highlights they are! Big Boi begins his proceedings with the outrageous acid-funk of “Ghettomusick,” 1000 mile per hour breaks crashing into laconic Patti LaBelle samples, Dre’s helium-soaked voice popping up in the bridge/chorus/slow bit, one of the few collaborations on the album(s). It makes “B.O.B” sound sane. Speakerboxx also excels with the sweet, existential “Unhappy” (“might as well have fun cos your happiness is done and your goose is cooked”), the irresistible horn-led funkiness of “Bowtie” and the low key groove of “Reset”. Jay-Z drops by for “Flip Flop Rock”, a slice of exquisite hip-hop built on a springy guitar loop, some hyper-scratching and a beatific piano roll, while “The Way You Move” is Spanish-inflected r’n’b dancefloor-fodder of the highest quality. The rest of Speakerboxxx is consistent and unremarkable, even the skits lacking that certain something to mark them out.
The Love Below, on the other hand, is a sonnet cycle about falling in love. No, really. A modern day, hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic psychedelic-pop-funk-electro-jazz sonnet cycle with no regard for iambic pentameters or 14-line rhyme schemes put together by an estranged vegan hip-hop superhero, certainly, but you get what I mean. Loosely the binding concept is about the romantic imperative at the heart of hedonism; or, finding love amongst the madness, where you least expected it. Discovering that the one-night-stand you never expected to lead to anything is actually your introduction to the one. Or something. (The “Where Are My Panties?” skit expresses it much better than I ever could.) So we wade through exquisite, commercialism-masquerading-as-love-baiting Prince workouts (“Happy Valentine’s Day”), lurid and lucid future-funk r’n’b psyche (“She Lives In My Lap”), lounge-jazz noise-rock easy listening (“Love Hater”), catchy pseudo-drum’n’bass odes to anal sex (“Spread”), duets with Norah Jones, songs about vampires falling in love (featuring Kelis), risible drum’n’bass covers (“My Favourite Things” – wisely unlisted), moody, sparse-jazz-tinged ruminations on onanism (“Vibrate”), skittish, falsetto-laden electro-minimalism (“She’s Alive”) and two of the best things Outkast have ever recorded (the blissful Prince slink of “Prototype” and the Frank Black-goes-psyche-funk-power-pop of “Hey Ya”) and come to some kind of conclusion with “A Life In The Day Of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete)”, in which Dre tells the story of how he got here, almost.
You could of course, if you like, rip the best tracks from each album and burn them together into some kind of RIAA-baiting SuperLoveBoxxx CDR that creams all opposition with its x-ray vision, amazing strength and ability to leap multiple genres in a single bound, but that would be missing the point. Life, like hip-hop, is a messy, ever-evolving process, with peaks, troughs, and long passages where you’re not really sure what happened. From comic-book heroes to guardians of black America, Outkast have come a long way in the last decade. Whether they’ll go much further together is a matter for debate, but where they are now is a frustratingly sublime and astonishing place.
5 + 5 = 10