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Outkast just don't make the same album twice. Instead, the genre-pushing hip hop act released two different albums at the same time.
The much-anticipated double album that is Speakerboxxx/The Love Below gives the duo of Big Boi and Andre 3000 the forum to stand on their own respective feet, making this release a pseudo-solo album for members of a band that is still together.
This paradox works well, as each half has produced a fine album showing the nuances of two different-yet-same performers.
With a nearly decades-old tradition of garnering critical and fan acclaim, the Atlanta-based Outkast first made waves with its initial offering, 1994's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (which spawned the hit "Player's Ball"), creating much buzz about the so-called "third coast" of hip hop music, the Deep South. And, after having developed the geography of the South on Southern…, Outkast ventured into different sonic realms with the sci-fi funk of ATLiens (1996), the defiant homegrown-ness of Aquemini (1998) and turn-of-the-century hip hop on Stankonia (2000).
Now, three years later, the duo holds its throne with this double album as the most progressive hip-hop act in the mainstream.
And, if each Outkast album has a nod to the road less traveled, then Speakerboxxx/The Love Below's is that the band's birthed a double album. It's an ambitious format, but Outkast pulls it off easily, as clearly the band takes its time in developing full albums instead of a handful of singles between filler.
Besides that, only subtle differences exist between this offering and Outkast's previous ones. You have surprising beats (such as "Spread"), modern-day Parliament funk (The Love Below's "She Lives in my Lap"), slick production from the state-of-the-art Stankonia studio and the clever wordplay Big Boi and Andre 3000 regularly deliver in their respective, distinctive styles.
Outside of the fact that, here, each half of Outkast basically created two solos albums packaged together, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is best appreciated as a way Big Boi and Andre 3000 can each hold audience attention on their own, and let their lyrical and musical personalities shine.
On Big Boi's Speakerboxxx, the man known as the playa half (of the often-repeated and simplified "playa and the poet" moniker Outkast gets) leaps from his pigeonhole. Take for example, the infectious "The Way You Move," which features Sleepy Brown channeling Sly and the Family Stone, or "GhettoMusick," which warbles between the tempo equivalents of Ecstasy and Marijuana highs.
While Big Boi (nee Anton Patton) is still showing his aggression and swagger, there's a thoughtfulness that permeates Speakerboxxx, such as in "Unhappy" with its hook of "cuz your happiness is done and your goose is cooked." To wit, here's a man that is strutting solo down a sidewalk in musical neighborhoods he's only driven past.
And, in The Love Below, we expect Andre 3000 (nee Andre Benjamin) to give us the unexpected (he does), in his half of this double feature. But whereas, Big Boi's produced a hip hop album, Andre escapes from The Love Below virtually rap-free, essentially offering an otherworldly pop album.
Blending everything from Kraftwerk beats to Frank Black vocals to James Brown yelps on first single "Hey Ya," Andre is still miles ahead of his peers. The Love Below is a bumper-car ride of an album, with the Rat-Pack era "Love Hater" minutes away from synthetic booty-shaker "Spread," and a duet with Norah Jones ("Take Off Your Cool"). There's even a skit that takes from Oscar Wilde and Abott and Costello.
Amid rumors that this double album signals the end of Outkast, Big Boi tries to calm the sharks, such as on his "Tomb of the Boom," when he raps, "They say, 'Big Boi, can you pull it off without your nigga Dre?'/I say, 'People, stop the madness, 'cause me and Dre be OK.'"
In fact, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is essentially a meiosis of Outkast, not a mitosis. Each half seems incomplete without the other, yet manages to showcase what makes it unique. A yin and yang, if you will.
If this cell division bothers you (and it shouldn't), solve it by putting both halves in your CD player and hitting the SHUFFLE button. Many fans, while adoring the group Outkast, identify more with Andre than Big Boi, or vice versa. This double album gives fans the chance to enjoy that fact, without offending the neglected half.
Essentially, each album here has much to appreciate, and the balance that is Outkast remains, with no real star emerging, except for the music.
Catherine E. Galioto is Rockzone's Features Editor / Columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.