Monday, September 23, 2013

Ten Years Gone: Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

This entry is part of an ongoing series in where I take a look back at landmark films and albums released 10 years ago.

When I think about what it was like during the time Outkast's fifth album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, was released, I can't recall ever sharing such a huge amount of optimism and trepidation concerning a project. Coming off the smash Stankonia, which was so hugely popular that it became one of the few hip hop albums up until then to be nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, expectations were stratospheric. Outkast had managed to make each successive album contain fewer borders, rarely taking a step backward when it came to trying new things. By the time Speakerboxxx/The Love Below came around, the dusty, buttermilk-battered funk of their debut Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik was but a distant memory and only served as a slight reference point to the foundation of their sound. The increasing eclecticism no doubt helped to expand their audience and it was reasonable at the time to expect that their latest double album would be nothing short of mind-blowing.

Here is where the trepidation came: the two discs would serve as solo albums for Big Boi and André 3000, with very little overlap. This only further fueled the rumors that André had become bored with hip hop and would eventually leave Outkast altogether. While we did get a follow-up in 2006's Idlewild, which served as the soundtrack to their movie of the same name, it displayed much of the same duality of SB/TLB, but with fewer highs and more middling songs than fans were used to from the group. While the two have collaborated since then, that was their last proper album. In essence, the beginning of the end for one of this era's greatest artists started back in 2003 and this album would be the one that cemented that title.

The credentials for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below read like a checklist for classic status. There are two #1 singles, diamond certification, a zeitgeist-spawning video, an Album of the Year win (even rarer for hip hop) and a #1 placement on the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop albums and singles poll, which aggregates the year-end lists of critics nationwide to form a consensus. To give a bit more perspective to how huge the album was, its only fitting comparison in recent memory would be Adele's 21, another album that thrived off the success of its monsters singles and the goodwill of the artist that made consumers across demographics believe their money was going to someone who was talented, thus making it a safe purchase.

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below got off to a fast start, going gold in its first week and powered by its two debut singles: "The Way You Move" and "Hey Ya." The former was one of Big Boi's most exuberant and accessible moments on record, employing elements of bass music and a silky knockout of a chorus with long-time collaborator Sleepy Brown that updated Earth Wind & Fire for Gen Y dance floors. On the other end of the spectrum was "Hey Ya," undoubtedly the more enduring of the two and can be responsible for much of the album's commercial success. Upon hearing it for the first time, it was kind of jarring to hear something so quirky and jangly from one of my favorite MCs, but damned if I didn't want to hear it again immediately. The simplicity of the chorus and the melody eventually worked its way into the national conscious, resulting in country-wide sing-a-longs and unified hand claps that still reverberate whenever the song plays in your local bar.

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below made good on the promise of those two songs, with Speakerboxxx further pushing the boundaries of the Dirty South sound Outkast made their name on into something sharper, sexier, funkier and more soulful while The Love Below was a detour into kitchen sink eclecticism that only briefly flirted with hip hop. The majority of the media attention was laid upon André 3000's effort, mainly due to its diversity and its deviation from a standard hip hop sound, which is usually an automatic positive in the eyes of mainstream critics. In addition, The Love Below had the type of wild, unchecked, sprawling ambition that was typically reserved for classic rock and Prince albums, which rock critics also tend to love. Regardless of what kind of cultural context you want to place the disc in, its high points cannot be denied. With tracks such as the sensual drum n' bass rush of "Spread," the hauntingly seductive "She Lives In My Lap" and the molasses-dripping, Bootsy tribute that was "Prototype," The Love Below provided good songs, regardless of what the audience previously associated with the artist.

While nothing can be taken away from The Love Below when it hit its stride, the accomplishments of its counterpart tend to get overlooked for what was perceived as a less adventurous effort. With a look at the rest of 2003's notable hip hop albums (50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Tryin', David Banner's Mississippi: The Album, T.I.'s Trap Muzik, Jay-Z's The Black Album and Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner), there was really nothing else that sounded like Speakerboxxx at the time and it is not credited enough for that. On André 3000-produced tracks such as "Ghettomusick" and "Church," it would be expected for the chemistry between the duo to result in something futuristic and catchy, yet Big Boi successfully staked his own claim to individuality with funky, sweat-inducing tracks like "Bowtie" and "The Rooster," along with introspective turns like "Unhappy" and "Reset." For what it's worth, it's just as emotionally complex as The Love Below. It certainly is leaner and the more concise of the two, in my opinion, but the sum of their parts lead to very few complaints.

While the rock canon has surely anointed SB/TLB as the essential Outkast album, I still think ATLiens and Aquemeni are superior albums, but that's besides the point. If an album that includes along with the aforementioned songs, "Roses," "Flip Flop Rock," "A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete)," "She's Alive" and "Last Call" can only be considered the third best in a career, that's a mighty impressive catalog on hand.

The legacy of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will probably not only lie in what it meant to hip hop, but Black culture in general. For those who have followed Outkast from the beginning, the musical choices they've made in their career should not come as a surprise, given the experimental touches on ATLiens (ex. "E.T. (Extraterrestrial)" and in the liner notes for that same album, they proclaimed themselves as fans of Smashing Pumpkins and Kate Bush. Add to the fact that their name is Outkast, it's no wonder that they've always marched to their own drum, bucking all trends and choosing to create their own instead. While SB/TLB was not the "big leap forward" creatively history will have you think, it opened up a marketplace for eccentricity in hip hop and R&B.

Outkast is cut from the same cloth as other wildcards such as Sun Ra, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Betty Davis and Parliament/Funkadelic in the sense that they bucked African-American stereotypes, musically and visually, and widened the scope of what can sometimes be a narrow view of classes and ethnic groups in America. In the more modern era, beginning with the late '80s, many other acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, P.M. Dawn, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Kool Keith broadened the perceived archetype of the young African-American male in music. Even in the year prior to SB/TLB, we saw the release of eclectic albums such as N*E*R*D's In Search Of..., Common's Electric Circus and Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections, but it was Outkast—with credibility and commercial success already under their belt—that kicked the door off the hinges so forcefully that there was no way that the nation, and more importantly label executives, could not take notice after Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Along with Missy Elliott, Outkast provided a colorful new voice in the pop world during the early 2000s, whose seeds are now fully starting to bear fruit. In the years following SB/TLB, Cee-Lo, a man who has been associated with Outkast and a member of their collective, The Dungeon Family, since the beginning, found enormous success with his side project Gnarls Barkley and later on with his third solo album, The Lady Killer, all without betraying any of his whimsical sensibilities. If you haven't noticed, it became okay and marketable for Lupe Fiasco to walk with robots, Kid Cudi moping around with MGMT and Ratatat, Santigold songs to appear in commercials and for Janelle Monae to be on the verge of becoming a household name while losing her mind on top of David Letterman's desk. Without the success of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, those actions are harder to sell to mainstream America. Ten years later, it's beyond acceptable.

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