There’s an imaginary cup inside my head, and it is filled with an imaginary amount of viscous fluid that represents the goodwill afforded by me to OutKast, built up over the years by virtue of a decade-long streak of hip-hop greatness.
It’s half-full at the moment.
Half-full, you notice, and not half-empty. After all, I’m a perpetual optimist, even if I do wave the pessimist’s banner sometimes. And besides, when it comes to OutKast, I’m always feeling hopeful.
In any case, I could probably attribute the diminishing goodwill solely to Idlewild
, the latest release by them two dope boys in a Cadillac, but it’s only the most recent symptom of an aggregate situation. Idlewild
, though just a soundtrack for the duo’s big screen vehicle of the same name (and therefore, somewhat non-canonical), essentially represents a low-point in the OutKast catalogue. And though most hip-hop artists would kill to have an album like Idlewild
as a career low-point, OutKast, given all their well-deserved critical and popular acclaim, can do much better than this.
Of course, it’s a contentious point to say that everything OutKast was always roses up until now. But for a good duration of the group’s career, OutKast has enjoyed unabashed success on all fronts. That success certainly facilitated the way for an off-the-wall project like Idlewild
. Sure, critics and detractors were not necessarily completely placated by the duo’s “double album” effort Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
, but one cannot deny the album’s popular success, which eclipsed the group’s already renowned popularity. In spite of all lukewarm reviews, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
went platinum 11-times over, won several industry awards, yielded a pair of #1 singles and further cemented the status of OutKast as both important popular and artistic figures in the Valhalla of hip-hop heroes. By the end of the year, even the chilliest of critics warmed up to the album’s undeniable delights, even if disapproving of the album on a whole.
Most surprising, however, was the fact that the duo, Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, achieved these stratospheric levels of success on individual terms. Precisely, the sounds in which the two chose to demonstrate their new-found creative independence divided audiences and forced fans and critics alike to re-evaluate the duo as a unit. Patton, as Big Boi, the loveable elder hierarch of Southern rap, carved out tightly-wrought tunes that perhaps most closely resembled the most linear direction the duo could have taken post-Stankonia
, perfectly catering to an eager mainstream audience. Meanwhile, Benjamin, as Andre 3000, the wildcard eccentric, decided to channel his inner pop demons to the best of his ability, summoning merseybeat bounce and Prince
’s sexually-addled computer soul toward pure pop effect.
The division continues on Idlewild
. From one standpoint, it sounds like friendly competitive creative tension, which is essentially the foundation Patton and Benjamin founded OutKast itself on. But unlike a freestyle battle between old buddies, on Idlewild
, and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
before it, the tension is so palpable that it results in an artistic push and pull that forces the duo further away from one another, rather than creating a successful blend of aesthetics and goals. The creative personalities of Big Boi and Dre, which once intermingled almost effortlessly, now seem like the source of the problem.
Mostly, it’s the lack of interaction between the two. Though they’ve put themselves on the same disc as opposed to the individual discs of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
, the two sound as distanced and as ensconced in their own ideas than ever. With only a handful of collaborations, the album might as well have been split into two; certainly would have spared the cluttered feeling of the album. 19 actual songs spread out over an hour, though hardly harrowing by today’s sardine-packed standards, feels a bit like a trial because of the constant divergences. One minute, Dre’s trying to funk you up, the next minute Big Boi’s bringin’ it, bringin’ it on down.
Of course, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem if quality held consistent over the hour. But even though the album spikes with some undeniably enjoyable moments, the jerky jumps in quality, not to mention the jumps from the movie’s 30’s inspired backdrop to George Clinton
-esque synthesizer funk, will probably be too much for the casual listener.
Occasionally, the collage of styles works to the group’s favor. Big Boi makes particular strong use of the speak-easy influences; though his tracks are undeniably modern, he infuses little touches into his songs, which are also bolstered by admirable contributions from Killer Mike, Sleepy Brown
, Scar and the lovely Janelle Monáe
, chanteuse and member of Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon label, among others. Lead single “Morris Brown,” featuring Brown and Scar, is exemplary proof of the trademark OutKast innovation within the hip-hop genre; the marching band rhythms supplement the groove, a brass-boosted punch spattered with Brown and Scar’s interwoven vocal parts. Creamy.
Andre’s contributions comparatively sound less comfortable. One gets the feeling he might be trying too hard. The unwieldily titled “Chronomentrophobia” makes for an awkward psychedelic hip-hop interlude sandwiched between the bombast of “Morris Brown” and “The Train.” While the latter two, as well as other Big Boi tracks like “N2U,” “Peaches,” and even “Call the Law” narrow the Chitlin Pimp’s vision remarkably, Dre reaches too far and brings back too little, too often. In the context of the film, these tracks make some sense, but as standalone pieces, songs like “Makes No Sense at All” and the swingin’ “When I Look In Your Eyes” barely make it as diversions. One to look at it: Big Boi’s approach to the idea of making a musical was to make the music he knew; Andre tries to bend himself to fit a role, that, film be damned, doesn’t fit.
When the duo finds the time to work as a group though, the results are pleasant enough, generally trumping the solo indulgences via that classic ATL synergy. “PJ and Rooster” is definitely a highlight, featuring both in solid form, playfully slipping themselves into character over an infectious, walking bassline. Meanwhile, “Mighty ‘O’” harkens back to the straightforward mid-90’s style the band dropped around the time of Stankonia, just flows and no more. Dre returns to rapping more than a few times throughout the album, so one can savor that; otherwise, Big Boi’s inimitable flow gives the album its anchor. Few ought disagree that he is among the best mainstream MCs not retired or sanging. Tearing into critics and gossips of both professional and amateur rank on the Andre-produced “Hollywood Divorce,” he makes Andre sound rusty, Lil’ Wayne, an upstart and Snoop, a relic.
And so it goes with this incarnation of OutKast. Big Boi ought be commended for being the glue holding the thing together, maintaining consistency, showing up everyday, clocking the hours, blah blah blah. More importantly, his contributions under the moniker, when he could have easily gone the egotistical route, ditched Andre, and served up some great hip-hop by his lonesome, have kept OutKast from fumbling into their own perpetual excess of potential. The more subtle components of the group, namely Andre’s production, rapping skills and his subtly increasing musical proficiency, assumed by some as the key source of that potential, don’t seem completely out of whack. Just spread too thin.
In an industry of overgrown egos, the greatest thing Idlewild
has to offer the music listening audience is a display of unabashed love between two dudes, no homo. Even if they’re not working on tracks in the same studio, the bond between the duo is strong enough to whether the growing creative rift and the business complications such a rift entails. They’re friends to the end, and that’s a little heartwarming. Unsurprisingly, there’s little to no ill will between the two, which is why the group hasn’t broken up and, in theory, which is why OutKast could potentially last forever.
Unfortunately, so little of that comes through the actual songs. Over the course of 25 tracks, each apportions a little chunk of disc and works from there, occasionally crossing paths when it suits the project. Simply put, the image of Big Boi and Andre recording in separate studios is not conducive to quality OutKast material.
Quality Big Boi material?
Quality Andre 3000 material?
But not quality OutKast material. The group dynamic of OutKast is gone. The result is not the end of OutKast, merely the end of OutKast as we’ve known it. Here’s a new beast, kiddies. Here’s Idlewild
. You might not like it, but me, well, I’m an optimist.