REVIEW: Outkast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below

Speakerboxxx / The Love Below

Artist: Outkast

Album: Speakerboxxx / The Love Below

Label: Arista

Rating: 9.5 / 10

Reviewer: A to the L

Ok so normally I like to try to get my shit done FIRST – be the first site to carry reviews of the new stuff. This time though it just couldn’t be done… had to let the shit marinate… give me time to form my own opinions as well as check out what other heads were thinking. Why? I mean its me, A to the L baby. When the hell have I ever given a shit about other people’s opinions before about ANYTHING? Yeah normally that’s the case, but I think most people were thrown for a loop by this album’s release. The rumours of Andre’s disc being a bit um… bonkers, as well as ‘Kast’s increasingly experimental sounds that really took hold on “Stankonia” and continued on tracks like ‘The Whole World’ and that bloody Scooby Doo soundtrack cut that’s best not mentioned, meant that although on one hand people were amped for a new Outkast release, they were also cautious that maybe the duo were heading down an avenue from which, if things went awry, there would be no way back.

Lets cover the obvious first. Yes its a 2-disc set. Yes, its really 2 solo joints packaged together under the Outkast brand. Yes, people have been up in arms about it because Big Boi without Andre is like salt without pepper, ying without yang, Erick Sermon without Parrish Smith – you get the picture. And yes, Andre’s disc is not what ANYONE expected. Andre’s disc is NOT Hiphop. However if you’re the type of cat who has to stick a tag on anything to be able to enjoy it, then maybe you should quit reading this, and go back to the comfortable world of Fiddy and Ja-Rule where the boundaries are drawn and never stepped outside. Maybe that safe world is for you. Me however – I like MUSIC. So I’ll hang out with Outkast a little while longer, thanks.

Anyway, 2 separate cds, means each has to be taken on its own merits, after which we’ll come back and find out what the decision to market them together means to you… after all its you who’ll be shelling out your hard earned for this at the end of the day anyway. So clear some time, cos this might take a while…

So first off – welcome to “Speakerboxxx”. Big Boi’s disc starts off with ‘GhettoMusick’, an Andre-produced joint, heavy with experimentation on the crunchy synths tip, which flips from lightning fast Funkadelic-influenced choruses and rhymes to cut-the-music-off-so-I-can-croon Andre inserts. The fact that this track flips ALL over the place should not be lost on anyone – its a definite sign of what is to come throughout the rest of both cds. The main factor however, regardless of the crazy switching on the track, is “is it good?” Thumbs up over here, from the leprechaun – the shit bangs.

Following up the frantic intro is a sequence of tracks that are arguably the strongest on Big Boi’s disc. ‘Unhappy’, ‘Bowtie’, and ‘The Way You Move’ manage to bring out the kind of style we expect from Outkast of old, and combine it with the new flavour and new direction that they’ve plotted for the future. All 3 of these tracks feature Big Boi’s trademark rapid-fire delivery and buttery smooth choruses from Sleepy Brown, who judging from this could easily be the South’s answer to Nate Dogg. Big Boi’s talent behind the boards also comes to the fore – his production on ‘Bowtie’ and ‘The Way You Move’ is as close to perfect as you’re likely to see, and his influences from Parliament / Funkadelic must again be noted, especially on the chorus of ‘Bowtie’, which is Clintonesque to the extreme.

‘The Rooster’ and ‘Bust’carry a much harder edge than the tracks that preceded. Not necessarily a bad thing – though following up what came before is a very difficult task – its hard to fight the urge to skip back to ‘Unhappy’ and start into those 3 tracks again. ‘The Rooster’ is heavy on the horns – funky brass bouncing all around the place as Big Boi urges you to “throw ya fuckin’ back out”, while ‘Bust’ brings Killer Mike to the table over a set of funk-rock guitar riffs that once again, draw the Clinton comparisons.

‘War’ melllow things out musically again, but toughens up lyrically, with Big Boi dropping the knowledge on politicians and the war against terrorism over a Mr DJ-produced beat.

“Operation Anaconda: ask yourself, was it full of bleeps and blunders?
Did they ever find Osama? And why in the fuck did Daniel Pearl have to pay
The price for his life and his wife plead twice?
See Alamin got life and Fred got dead Hampton
To dampen the dream of the Panthers they got the answer
For ransom, as we breathe together as we dream together
Count your blessings whenever you feel that things won’t be no better but it got to”

Andre’s production style is smeared all over ‘Church’ – more of those synths, more of those hundred mile an hour paced beats, more of those catchy choruses… once again, the whole thing works perfectly. Its a beautiful piece of music, and Big Boi’s lyrics add that essential last ingredient. In fact the only thing that COULD have made this better is if Andre actually traded verses with his partner instead of sitting in behind the boards.

Elsewhere, the cream of the Dirty South is recruited to help strengthen tracks that, to be honest, would stand up strongly on their own. However the addition of Ludacris, Konkrete and Big Gipp on ‘Tomb Of The Boom’, Khujo Goodie and Cee-Lo on ‘Reset’, and Slimm Calhoun and Lil Jon on ‘Last Call’ makes each of these tracks must-haves. ‘Tomb Of The Boom’ features little more than a stripped-down drum track – one of the more-simply produced tracks on the LP which allows the emcees to run riot, with Ludacris’ short but amped verse probably shading it. ‘Reset’ is smoooooooooooooooth to the extreme, with a haunting Debra Killings hook throwing up images of smoky jazz clubs, while the Lil Jon and ‘Kast pairing that might have some raising eyebrows actually works amazingly well on ‘Last Call’. This joint has one of the strongest and catchiest choruses you’re likely to hear – almost radio-ready in terms of how they like to pump shit at you 100 times a day – once you hear this you won’t forget it in a hurry.

Its wrong to say that ‘Knowing’ and ‘Flip Flop Rock’ just “make up the numbers”. They both deserve a mention. The former is another fast-paced, hard-edged track balanced out with a smooth chorus, while the latter track features a collab between Big Boi, Killer Mike, and one S Dot Carter (that’s Jay-Z to the ignant) on the hook. This was one of the first tracks that I heard off this whole LP, and to be honest, at the time I wasn’t initally impressed. However over time, ‘Flip Flop Rock’ has grown on me a lot – I think mainly for showing how all the different ingredients in the song actually do work together perfectly. I mean, at its heart this track has little more that a simple piano roll, and the rest of the shit is built up from that. Its a simple but effective blueprint, and the layers and layers of different sounds meshing together illustrate a perfect display of what the whole Outkast sound is all about.

And so endeth the sermon… for that disc… now we turn our attention to the mixed up world of Andre Benjamin and “The Love Below”…

So um… we begin with jazz. Not jazz-influenced Hiphop. Straight up jazz. ‘Love Hater’ does the whole damn jazz thing to perfection with Andre crooning over the top of some shit-that-Premier-might-go-back-and-sampled styled jazz breaks. Of course things get the regular Outkast twist with the inclusion of some spikey guitars on the chorus, but for the most part, its like butter, baby. And not a steel-grippin’, mic-splittin’, mind-rippin’ rhyme in sight. Yeah you read the promo blurbs and interviews for this Andre disc right – he DOES seem to be disillusioned with the confines of Hiphop (even a Hiphop as left-field as the one Outkast operate from), and he DOES want to try his own thing – whatever that might be and wherever that might take him. Like I said earlier though, if you’re looking for straight up Hiphop, you should maybe look elsewhere, cos this is the furthest away from Hiphop that you’re likely to get this year. However, if you wanna get off your ass and jam, then Andre has the same kind of Clinton and Bootsy wild-out influences that he touched on with his production styles on Big Boi’s disc.

Now listen up. You know how Big Boi had that dope sequence of tracks on his disc? Well, Andre’s done exactly the same trick – only he’s managed to one up his colleague by throwing on here SEVEN (yes, seven) tracks that beg to be repeated over and over again.

The sequence starts with ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’, a feelgood factor jam that screams radio hit from the opening bass kick. This track has everything – the music, the hooks, the ability to put a smile on your grill, as well as that bounce that could even see this being dropped in many DJ’s club sets. From there, the slow church organ intro of ‘Spread’ is quickly overtaken by an almost drum’n’bass-tempoed set of drums which take this track off to somewhere else altogether. Again, its the chorus that instantly jumps out – a trait that several of Andre’s tracks throughout the disc possess. Here his falsetto sets the scene for a “quick lets get out of here, so I can get you home” scenario. Y’all know how it be after a night at the club y’all. There’s also a rare appearance here of Andre Benjamin – the rapper, and its hard not to wish that he popped up more frequently throughout the album. Following the hear-once-then-skip ‘Where Are My Panties’ skit that finishes the story of ‘Spread’, the vibe changes.

‘Prototype’ chills things waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay the fuck down, while at the same type moving away from the freakiness of the previous track towards something that has “serious affairs of the heart” written all over it. Andre’s heartfelt words to the girl of his dreams will sound crazy on their own, but when they’re dropped over a sloppy bass guitar and a few strings, all of a sudden “Stank you very for picking me up and bringing me back to this world” takes on a suitably romantic meaning.

‘She Lives In My Lap’ is a perfect illustration of the ‘new’ Andre. Production wise, this is touching perfection – slimey synths, distorted vocals and guitars, all held together with simple but effective sets of kick drums, and scratches and cuts from Geto Boys and Volume 10 tracks. It’s laid out for Andre and Big Boi to trade verses as usual – but as we’ve explained – here for all intensive purposes, this is the Andre Benjamin show, and so replacing the expected raps we have Andre singing his little ass off, supported by Rosario Dawson. The result is bittersweet. We’re left with a gorgeous song, but just not the kind we might have expected. As a track to stand on its own – its superb, but shit… even a remix with a Big Boi / Andre tag team thing going off over thie beat would take the shit up to the NEXT level.

By now everyone will have heard ‘Hey Ya’. Radio loves it. MTV loves it. Fans love it. What? You don’t? Well go clean out your ears then, cos again, Andre has done his thing in the studio, and came out the door with a certifiable classic. Y’all know how it goes – acoustic guitars, the hook of ALL hooks, and the whole “ice cold” steelo. You know the drill, jill – ain’t no need to expand any more. Its dope, and you’re not. Let us move on.

Finally on ‘Roses’ we get what we’d been wishing for. As close to a “real” Outkast jam as you’ll get here, this track will also do wonders for raising Andre’s profile as a producer. Musically, this is gorgeous – from the funk-soul chorus with an Andre twist, “Roses really smell like boo-boo?”, to Big Boi’s on-point verse, there’s nothing out-of-place at all here – the shit fits perfectly, and is one of the standout tracks across both cds. Rounding our little strong sequence off is ‘Behold A Lady’, where ‘Dre keeps the tempo up, and again comes with another memorable chorus.

The high standard that these tracks however, have set Andre up for an almighty fall if he slips at all, and unfortunately the next few tracks see our hero falter. Both ‘Pink & Blue’ and ‘She’s Alive’ slow the tempo way down, and lose their sparkle by becoming incredibly repetitive much too quickly. The latter track, for all its good intentions about supporting single mothers, is a mind-numbing waste of 4 minutes. Sandwiched between these, ‘Love In War’ doesn’t really do much either – again, repetitiveness is the enemy here, with the simple chorus being uttered over and over again, and forcing the skip finger to come into play. I think some of this may well be to do with the sequencing of the album. In a different position somewhere on here, all of these cuts could work, but the strength of what came makes them all pale into insignificance.

This point of view is further supported by the last quarter of the LP where things takes an amazing upswing. ‘Dracula’s Wedding’ starts the revival, and after initially finding this a bit boring, I gotta admit that its grown tremendously on me. Here Andre throws down some of those sickeningly squelchy synths like a big-ass rug, and then proceeds to set up a nice little musical picnic with Kelis. This is a real grower, and must be checked.

Uncredited on the album, ‘A Few Of My Favourite Things’ sees Andre instrumentally update an old jazz favourite with faster-than-you-know beats, a smattering of wind instruments and some freestyle piano playing, before the super-short ‘Take Off Your Cool’ breezes in with acoustic goodness. The distinctly non-Hiphop Norah Jones is introduced here to those who may still be unware of her husky-voiced goodness, and coupled with the warm vibes emanating from Andres’ production, in addition to his high pitched vocals, the combination is another winner.

‘Vibrate’ and ‘A Day In The Life Of Andre Benjamin’ round things off, and again highlight the differences between the Andre of old and the new Andre. The former track shows hims at his newly-experimental best, flipping beats backwards, tossing in trumpets on mute, and uttering what seems like genius and nonsense at the same time. ‘A Day In The Life…’ is superbly frustating and frustratingly superb. Why? Well here you’re gonna hear a stripped down drum track, a little echo-ey synth and FIVE minutes of Andre spitting like we’ve grown to expect. THIS is the Andre of old. THIS is the Andre that everyone wanted on here, and the one who’s mostly non-appearance will leave many disappointed. The scary thing is that as he spits his autobiography on wax, it almost sounds like a swansong – like he’s gearing up to finish with Hiphop, and this is his last will and testament for the old Andre. (Bakced up by the fact that this is the ONLY track on both discs that doesn’t carry the lyrics printed on the inside cover. Conspiracy theorists can start up anytime now.) The whole track carries a sombre vibe, and leaves an almost uncomfortable ending to a solid album.

And so, where does that leave us? I don’t know. Come back to me tomorrow and Andre’s album will be a classic, and Big Boi’s will be a little weaker. The day after it’ll be flipped. Its the enigma of Outkast – they’re constantly evolving, even to the point where each listen to an Outkast album sees your own listening experience change and evolve with each play through. The underlying worry that this might be the last ‘real’ Outkast album, ie one released under the ‘Kast name, is hard to discount though. Despite how dope they are together, as two separate artists they’ve both still managed to come up with the solo goods.

Result? Go grab it. Hiphop fans may be a little disappointed by the lack of Andre’s rapping skills on here, but think of it like this – you get ONE dope Big Boi solo album, and a nice little set of Andre shit, where you can skip the nasty “this shit don’t bump in the ride” tracks. Or hey – use Mr Benjamin as a coaster for your 40oz. Yeah – keep it real dunny. Nope… you know I’m bugging. Personally this is probably gonna be my album of the year, and anyone with an ear for music needs to pick this up. As a Hiphop release its important. As a music release – its ESSENTIAL.

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