The "Dre" side of Outkast's new double-solo-album-set, The Love Below, begins with a swooning, Elmer Bernstein-style overture --all strings and piano and crooning vocals, the onetime purveyor of "Southernplayalisticadillacmusik" now pushing straight-faced moon-June-spoon. It then opens up into Eddie Hazel guitar noise that then leads into cocktail-jazz drums and soul horns. At this point, you're only two minutes into the album, and it is a mess. By the end of the record, Andre Benjamin, who now calls himself Andre 3000 when he isn't test-driving monikers such as Cupid Valentino and Benjamin Amore, is giving Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" a drum-and-bass remix and dueting with Kelis on a bit of freak-flag funk called "Dracula's Wedding," which contains the constant refrain "Van Helsing, Van Helsing, Van Helsing," etc.
Though much of The Love Below is inexplicable, it isn't car-crash weird. It isn't Lauryn Hill Unplugged or late-era Terence Trent D'Arby. And it isn't these things not just because Dre's musical knuckleballs still find the strike-zone more often than not, but because he knows he's nuts and is good-humored about it. Whether discussing blow jobs with God (which God says do not count as cheating; insert Bill Clinton joke here), impersonating Cupid on "Happy Valentine's Day," or coining more catchphrases than a whole season of vintage Saturday Night Live on "Hey Ya!" ("Shake it like a Polaroid pitcha!" "ICE COLD!"), The Love Below heroically walks a tightrope between soul-baring and hip-hop vaudeville.
But as expansive as it is musically and temperamentally, it's also a concept album of sorts, a 78-minute meditation on love and sex with a brief timeout for a token tribute to mother. "You know what I really want to know? Where do all the good girls go? What club they hang at?" Dre wonders on the judgmental "Behold a Lady." He isn't interested in another video ho but is instead in pursuit of a down-to-Mars girl, and she doesn't even have to have a great big ass, just one well-proportioned to her body. He even cites Claire Huxtable as a sex symbol.
That's not very hip-hop, at least in the mainstream "P.I.M.P." sense. But The Love Below is hip-hop only because that's where Dre comes from and hip-hop devours all. Most of the vocals on the album are sung, and the lead single, the pure power-pop "Hey Ya!," owes very little to the genre. The record's strongest song may be the comic hate-song-to-an-ex "Roses," a sonic sequel to "Ms. Jackson" that's the only track on The Love Below to feature Big Boi as well.
What Dre really seems to be trying for here is a classic Prince album --an album Prince might have made in his prime if he hadn't been alienated by hip-hop. "She Lives in My Lap," for instance, directly evokes Prince songs such as "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" and "She's Always in My Hair," not to mention the Purple One's penchant for tabbing gorgeous and provocative partners. (Rosario Dawson supplies vocals on the song; Dre summons Norah Jones later on the record.) And the jaw-dropping "Spread" is surely an even hornier and weirder piece of carnal pop ("Don't want to/Make you feel strange but/Don't let these words/Be in vain Spread for me") than anything even Prince imagined -- almost certainly the most romantic song ever written about anal sex, where jazz-bar piano and Sign O' the Times horns jockey for space with sound effects that could have come from a porno version of Looney Tunes.
But while Dre is every bit as smart, funny, inventive, and authentically odd as Prince in his prime, he's not nearly as sharp a songwriter and nowhere near the singer. The result is an album that is gangbusters in concept but not nearly as consistent in execution as a lot of people are convincing themselves it is.
Antwan "Big Boi" Patton's leaner, meaner Speakerboxxx, on the other hand, is less fun to write about but probably more fun to listen to. Big Boi has always been underappreciated by rock-oriented Outkast fans who saw him as merely Dre's more conventional sidekick. Speakerboxxx, which boasts a whiplash but never beat-skimping musical creativity that might top any recent hip-hop not produced by Timbaland, corrects that foolishness.
Speakerboxxx is more focused than The Love Below musically but more wide-ranging and more grounded lyrically. It has all the standard-issue elements of hip-hop albums: boasts ("Bust,"), party tracks ("Bowtie"), posse cuts ("Tomb of the Boom," with Ludacris and Big Gipp or Goodie Mob), and regionalism (the very Dirty South "Last Call"). But it lets you know right up front --when the breakneck electrofunk on "GhettoMusik" takes a hard left into soft soul then right back again -- that it's anything but conventional hip-hop.
Big Boi's coming-out party probably gives a fuller, more honest, and, most importantly, more compelling peek into the artist's actual life than any major-label hip-hop record since Eminem's last. On the single-parenthood testament "Rooster" (a "Ms. Jackson" single contentwise), Big Boi throws his back out changing diapers and going to PTA meetings, his generosity established by giving his ex the last word. But that doesn't mean he's not ready to be an equal-opportunity Casanova at the club as well (see "The Way You Move"). And "Rooster"'s domestic troubles are grounded in the childhood remembrance of "Unhappy."
Speakerboxxx is ultimately the sound of a young man trying to keep it all together --his family, his musical partnership (which he defends on "The Way You Move" and "Flip Flop Rock"), and hip-hop itself. It suggests what few expected: that Dre might need Big Boi more than he needs Dre.
In rock terms, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is like Sandinista! to Stankonia's London Calling: At 39 tracks over more than two hours, it's overlong, overambitious, and without any moments that equal previous peaks (there's nothing on either record on a par with "Rosa Parks," "Ms. Jackson," or "B.O.B." ) but with good songs and compelling ideas spilling over across both discs. Both sides drag a bit toward the end and something is undeniably lost in separating these two personalities -- the yin-yang of Dre and Big Boi has always been part of the group's charm.
Give or take Sleater-Kinney, who work on a far more subcultural level, Outkast are the best and most important band of the past decade. I hope Big Boi isn't just being wishful on "The Way You Move" when he raps "We never relaxin'/Outkast is everlastin'/Not clashin', not at all," but if this is the last we hear of these two "together," at least now we know they can make it on their own. --Chris Herrington