Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Outkast's recent reunion has put the band on my mind lately, so I went back to listen to their magnum opus and one of my favourite albums, Speakerboxx/The Love Below.  (btw, if you think Stankonia is Outkast's actual best album, that's a perfectly legitimate stance.  It probably says something about my eclectic tastes that S/TLB is my favourite Outkast disc in the same way the White Album is easily my favourite Beatles disc.)  I listen to the entire double album in full every six months or so, and after so many years and so many listens, my feelings really haven't changed…Speakerboxx is the better of the two discs.

I actually covered this way back in 2008 when I teamed up with my pals Kyle & Misha to discuss "the best albums of our lives," and Misha and I both have S/TLB as our entry for 2003.  In mine and Misha's own words…

Me: Andre's disc has perhaps higher highs, though it also has more extraneous crap (i.e. the interludes....not to say that Big Boi's disc doesn't also have useless interludes, but the one featuring his infant son rapping and then dropping the MF bomb is pretty amusing).

Misha: You make a good point that I didn't talk about in my review of 'The Love Below", which is that, although it is great for the most part, there are some real duds. Big Boi's side is great, and certainly steadier, but never comes close to reaching the highlights of 'The Love Below'…..The albums are both strong in their own right, but Andre's half is by far the most accomplished. It's not even really a hip-hop record as much as a hybrid of rap, jazz, funk, rock, and R&B. It sounds like nothing else, almost like it was made on a different planet.

In essence, Misha and I basically had the same argument about the album's two halves that countless music fans have had over the last 11 years.  Don't get me wrong, I love Andre 3000's album.  As Misha noted, it's a wholly unique disc that really opened a lot of people's eyes about what Andre and Outkast as a whole could do,* and despite the next argument I'm about to make, TLB is flat-out a terrific piece of music.  It's both fresh AND good and it still sounds as great in 2014 as it did in 2003.

* = It's a common misconception that the two halves were wholly solo discs since both Big Boi and Andre co-wrote several songs on each other's records.  If you're doing this in a reductive "scorecard" fashion, you could argue that Big Boi "won" the S/TLB project since he co-wrote Hey Ya, Roses and Vibrate, thus giving him a bigger stake in that record's greatness than Andre did in Speakerboxx's greatness.  But again, this argument is dumb since we have no idea what either man contributed to either's songs.
This all being said, I feel that TLB has been slightly overrated over time because it was a) a different sound and b) it had Hey Ya on it, which trumps a lot of arguments.  Misha is right to praise Andre 3000 for so tremendously branching out into different genres, yet at the same time, it's a reductive argument that underrates what Big Boi did on Speakerboxx.

One of my favourite descriptions of Citizen Kane is Roger Ebert's citation of the film as "more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound."  All of the various innovations ascribed to Kane (the time-shifting plot, deep-focus cinematography, layered editing, etc.) had been done on lower levels in other movies before, yet Orson Welles collected all of these techniques together and used them to their fullest extent. 

In some respects, this is kind of what Big Boi was doing on Speakerboxx --- it is the crowning "gathering of all the lessons" of the Atlanta hip-hop sound.  The guest stars on the album are a who's who of Atlanta hip-hop icons, ranging from Ludacris to Lil Jon to three-fourths of the Goodie Mob.  You also had the out-of-left-field appearance of Jay Z on Flip Flop Rock, and while Jay isn't an Atlanta guy, his showing up adds to the "time capsule" effect if for no other reason than to show how Jay Z has had his fingers in every pie in the world for hip-hop and rap for almost 20 years now.  The guy is a Zelig.

It's easier for the casual music fan (i.e. the non-hip hop lovers who made S/TLB such a crossover hit) to appreciate Andre's side since he was dealing in broader forms of music, whereas I'd be willing to bet that those well-versed in hip-hop history probably see Speakerboxx as the superior disc.  I should note, of course, that I am in no way any sort of an expert on Atlanta hip-hop and there's a good chance I have no idea what I'm talking about, but this is merely how the situation *seems* to me.

As to the Hey Ya argument, I can't argue with that.  Hey Ya is an amazing song, the song of the 21st century, and probably the biggest reason why S/TLB made such a cultural impact.  That said, it doesn't totally excuse the extra dead weight on the record.  Love Below is almost 20 minutes longer than Speakerboxx and that added time starts to drag on you --- removing the three interludes, the My Favourite Things remix and A Life In The Day of Benjamin Andre would go a long towards tightening things up.  (The last track brings the album to a nice narrative close, though it's not really a song.)  I should sit down sometime to rank all 39 tracks on S/TLB, and if I do so, I suspect Speakerboxx may have up to two-thirds of the top fifteen.

Again, I love The Love Below!  I shouldn't need to denigrate it to praise what Big Boi was doing on the other end of the album.  The fact that fans are still debating this after 11 years is a sign of just how this record has endured and how it's one of the true timeless classics of modern music.

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