OutKast's new album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, is a perplexing work. At times, it is sloppy and appealing; elsewhere, it is masterful and programmatic. There's a circuslike atmosphere that infects it, a disease contracted from Prince's overwhelmingly diverse Sign o' the Times and shared by other overachieving acts like the Roots and Common. And yet it embeds itself in your mind like a searing flame burning your skin.
But by now, a decade after OutKast debuted with "Player's Ball" in the winter of 1993, even that sensation is to be expected. Since releasing Stankonia three years ago, Andre 3000 and Big Boi have specialized in unpredictable tours de force that are too messy and unkempt to be legitimately called masterpieces. "The Whole World," their hit single from the greatest-hits collection Big Boi and Dre Present . . . OutKast, was a loopy, vaudevillian gem on which the duo's raps were so off-kilter that guest MC Killer Mike's hard-hitting, no-frills rhyme was something of a revelation. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below doesn't even have a "Ms. Jackson" to bolster it (though it comes close with Andre's "She Lives in My Lap," his take on Prince and the Revolution's "She's Always in My Hair"). It just layers enough indulgence for you to sift through happily and exasperatedly.
The two discs are actually two albums, one each by Big Boi and Andre. The former's Speakerboxxx opens with an intro produced by Cutmaster Swift that could be an outtake from ATLiens, with its rippling bass and echoing female vocals; then it drops into "Ghetto Musick," a staccato booty bass collaboration produced by Andre. The next track is a winner, too: "Unhappy" is classic OutKast replete with smooth backing vocals from Sleepy Brown and a computer love beat from Mr. DJ. In fact, Big Boi doesn't really get a chance to shine on production until "Bowtie," an amusing pot of mumbo jumbo on which he raps "Nasty Noompsy Knightingale/Fresh in that tuxedo/Cummerbund with no suspenders/My torpedo/Your libido."
Throughout Speakerboxxx, Big Boi invites other musicians to leave their imprint. Konkrete, Big Gipp, and Ludacris run through the lumbering "Tomb of the Boom"; Killer Mike and Jay-Z kick pay styles over the skittering "Flip Flop Rock"; and Slimm Calhoun, Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz, and Mello holler on the crunked-out "Last Call." All of it is filtered through Big Boi's tastes for strip clubs, nuclear families, and rolling in a Cadillac on dubs with his friends. He's more concerned with real life than abstract concepts like love; and on the antiwar "War" he says, "'Stead of watching these sucker emcees/I'm seeing just how they're lying to the general population."
The result is an album that feels stodgier than it really is. Speakerboxxx has its charms in the form of several radio-ready tracks, which is part of the problem. Great hooks bolster its best songs ("Last Call" -- "To them motherfuckas holdin' the wall/Fuck y'all"), and its weaker tracks ("War") fall apart around nonexistent choruses ("Tic, Boom, Tic, Tic, Boom!"). Save for "Church," which shifts midsong from a jaunty keyboard beat into an arpeggio of gospel-infused frills, there aren't many innovations that would make the album a worthwhile listening experience regardless of how well the songs are constructed. With Speakerboxxx, what you hear is what you get; the epiphany comes in listening to a superior product.
While Speakerboxxx is solidly surrealist, The Love Below is crazily ecstatic. Andre brings in several guests, too, including Kelis, Norah Jones, and actress Rosario Dawson. Still, it's such a personal take on love and sex that it feels as if one is crawling into his mind or, rather, his penis. The aforementioned single "She Lives in My Lap" isn't the only song to reduce love to co-dependency; "Hey Ya" asks over an up-tempo bounce beat, "My baby don't mess around because she loves me so and this I know for sho'/But does she really want to?/But can't stand to see me walk through the door." On "Dracula's Wedding," he admits, "You're all I ever wanted/But I'm terrified of you."
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For OutKast fans who theorize that Andre's mid-'90s romance with Erykah Badu marked a turning point in his artistic life, there's "A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre." "We're young and in love/In short we have fun," he says over a bare-bones click track before escaping into potentially metaphorical comparisons like "Maybe if your neighbor does you a huge favor and he sells you the Rabbit that's sitting in his yard/You fix it up, you trick it out/You give it rims, you give it bump, you give it all your time because that's all you can think about." He doesn't bother rapping for most of The Love Below, which makes "A Life in the Day" so powerful. Finally, after an hour of impassioned singing, wildly spontaneous ad libs, and rococo pop instrumentation, he decides to break down and kick game about how OutKast evolved from a pair of Atlanta kids cranking out baller raps into one of music's most brazenly uninhibited groups.
Before that, though, he's all over the place. When he can't come up with the right word for a verse on "Prototype," he just starts vocalizing whatever comes to mind. He even plays a five-minute version of "My Favorite Things" on piano. And were it not for his airtight grooves bolstered by an array of side musicians from the Benjamin Wright String Orchestra ("Pink and Blue") to Cutmaster Swift ("Spread"), there would be no hooks, just piles and piles of melodies both bleeding into one another and emerging from the morass like shimmering diamonds.
Yes, The Love Below is an experience, but Andre's frequent flights of fancy can be alienating. It conflicts with the ideal of an album as a dependable piece of music or, at best, a compact work of art meant to hum along with. The Love Below is definitely art-pop, and will probably elicit rapturous acclaim from those wishing to nominate Andre for president, but it lacks self-consciousness. Still, who wants to temper his enthusiasm, no matter how trying it can be?
There's something to be said for the steady, unspectacular beats on Big Boi's album, qualities The Love Below could draw from more. Concurrently, Speakerboxxx could use some of the passion that Andre ladles out on his effort. So did we need a double CD to confirm that Big Boi and Andre need each other? Not really. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below's true worth, then, lies in its details, which add up to a greater understanding of why OutKast is so captivating and brilliant.