The original story was that Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000, one half of OutKast, had recorded his own solo concept album, The Love Below, and that OutKast’s other half, Antwan Patton, aka Big Boi, was so blown away by it that he determined to try and match it with his own solo album, Speakerboxxx. Other stories tell of increasing animosity in their efforts to follow up 2000’s groundbreaking fusion of rap, psychedelia, P-Funk and drum’n’bass, Stankonia. What we have, then, are two solo albums yanked together for convenience under the OutKast brand by two factions whose relationship, if not actually on the rocks, is certainly strained. Hip hop’s White Album, in other words. But is it? And are they any good?
On one hand Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is a serviceable if average hip hop album bearing too great a debt to George Clinton. It’s noticeable how the opening “Ghetto Musick”, the only instance on either album where the two halves of OutKast work together, towers almost embarrassingly over the rest of the record. Even the song itself veers schizophrenically between Big Boi’s Basement Jaxx-ish electroclash (“Cut me up! Don’t let me down”) and Andre’s deeply sardonic exclamations of “Feeling good! Feeling great!” over a Patti LaBelle sample. Only in the album’s later moments, like the Buggles-meets-Dick Dale of “Hip Hop Star” (featuring Jay-Z) and the doleful ballad “Reset”, do things pick up.
Andre 3000’s The Love Below, on the other hand, has almost nothing to do with hip hop. It is an avant-soul concept album that comprises the most sublime pop music heard on record this year. The introduction finds Andre crooning tremulously over lush orchestration, which is suddenly derailed by post-Sonic Youth guitar squeals before mutating back into the Al Jarreau-meets-David Lynch lounge jazz of “Love Hater”. Then Andre talks to God (“Damn, you’re a girl”) before slamming into the ecstatically neurotic Paisley Park funk of “Happy Valentine’s Day”, which in turn gives way to the fantastic “Spread”?The Magnetic Fields meet Was (Not Was).
The album’s most starkly beautiful track, the desperately gorgeous “Prototype”, where Andre’s bewildered acceptance of the possibility of love is soundtracked by Style Council guitars, is as poignant as Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”, soon followed by the awesome “Hey Ya!”, which sees Andre going power pop with overtones of early-’80s electro; The Knack meet side one of The The’s Soul Mining.
From then on in, every tangent is explored: the hilarious Jeeves and Wooster skit which prefaces “Behold A Lady”; “Pink & Blue”, which opens with an Aaliyah sample and threatens to turn into Throbbing Gristle’s “United”; a moving tribute to Andre’s mother, “She’s Alive”, which, with its minimalist piano and strained falsetto, is practically Radiohead; the hysterical duet with Kelis, “Dracula’s Wedding” (“I wait my whole life to bite the right one”); the purring, stabbing “Vibrate”; and the concluding “A Life In The Day Of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete)”, where he sends the whole album, and his life story, into a backwards loop. Whatever happens to OutKast next, these 78 minutes of wonder alone?sorry, Big Boi?prove Andre the genius and Antwan the artisan.