Approaching a project of this size is never easy for anyone: the artist, the reviewer, or the listener. It doesn’t stop the ambitious from creating double albums anyway, and few can be called more ambitious than OutKast. Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin and Antwan ‘Big Boi’ Patton have a decade of rap’s finest music under the belt. Although Atlanta has a fine hip-hop tradition it can be fairly argued they are the duo that put the city on the map worldwide as a hip-hop mecca – even naming one of their albums “ATLiens.” It was also the first of three consecutive albums widely considered by critics and fans alike to be 4 out of 5 stars or better, followed by “Aquemini” and “Stankonia.” Each time it seemed like the duo had pushed the limits of hip-hop to the max, their next album came even louder, as did Andre 3000’s wardrobe. After a greatest hits album and some time off to promote their Aquemini Records and its artists like Killer Mike, OutKast has returned in a big way with “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”

OutKast has always drawn it’s strength from the complex interaction between Andre and Big Boi, a hip-hop yin/yang that achieves a beautiful balance. While Big Boi kept them grounded in the gritty reality of concrete streets, Andre was the self-appointed Funkadelic of the group, descending from the Mothership to shoot rhymes from the hip. The two never clashed though. In fact when one got used to this dichotomy, they would change the rules of the game just to funk with your head. The only predictable thing about OutKast was that they always worked together to create soulful hip-hop. You can dance to it, get krunk to it, meditate to it or just plain think on it – they work on all levels. That’s why “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” is such a curious concept – splitting up a team that works so well together and having them record two seperate albums.

Packaged inside the compact disc you’ll find Andre 3000’s “The Love Below” on the top of a fold out tray and Big Boi’s “Speakerboxxx” underneath, although Big Boi’s cover art is on the “top side” and Andre’s smoking pink pistol underneath. Confusing? Not as much so as listening to “The Love Below” first. Andre has always had a little bit of R&B in him, singing hooks and once in a while spitting harmony instead of rhymes. Left to his own devices on “The Love Below,” Andre seems to have foresaken his formidable lyrical and vocal rap abilities for crooning altogether. “She Lives in My Lap” was one of the first songs leaked off the disc, and aside from some scratched in hip-hop samples one could easily miss the fact it was a rap song altogether. This is not the exception for “The Love Below,” it’s the rule. To his credit, Andre does sing with joie de vivre. On the intro, he hums to a softly played piano like the black Frank Sinatra. On “Love Hater,” his falsetto could put Pharrell to shame. “Happy Valentine’s Day” introduces us to one of his many alter egoes, Cupid Valentino (the modern day Cupid). It’s here that we discover his album’s artwork has additional meaning beyond the bizarre:

“Now, when arrows don’t penetrate, see
CUPID GRABS THE PISTOL! Ahh, yeah, now, now look-a-here
He shoots, straight, for your heart, now
But that’s alright
Y’all won’t believe in me anyway”

This song also clarifies the theme of Andre’s disc a bit when he utters this admonition: “There’s all this talk about Santa Clause, but see, love will rule supreme!” He has a lot of different kinds of love on this album though – commitment love, one night stand love, and straight up booty call can’t-unzip-my-pants-fast-enough love. Whether hip-hop fans will love it is less clear. In all honesty, even though Andre does not embarass himself at all as a crooner (something of a modern day George Clinton), this might have been better served as a side project outside OutKast. Rap fans know Andre can rap, and rap fans know his skills of old from “Player’s Ball” all the way up to and through “The Whole World.” They know he can speed it up like Twista, slow it down like Too $hort, and his wordplay puts even lyrically ambidextrous rappers like Aceyalone and Gift of Gab to shame. Who else but Andre could or would spit the phrase “Like a million elephants with silverback orangutans/you can’t stop a train” in a rap? No one. That’s why moments like his verbal artillery in “Spread” are too few and far between:

“I got a eye out, for she that cries out passionately
We’ll do things backwardly, forwardly, horizontally
I’m too young to be, settlin down
Quick to change my mind tomorrow, so now can I borrow
your timid torso, moreso than your soul
Honest me gotta be how I roll
Fuck the rhythm, tuck the rhythm, under your bosom
You’re the prism, Shirley Chisholm, was the first
Let’s rehearse, makin a baby
Put in your order, I want a baby daughter
Dance on the tip of my tongue
Shake the clouds until there’s no mo’ wetness in them
Tell your homegirls that you will send them
a postcard, from 3000 HARD!”

In short there’s no reason to not enjoy the Wonders style pop of “Hey Ya!,” the trippy techno funk of “Pink & Blue,” the peace punch of “Love in War” and duets like “Dracula’s Wedding” with Kelis and “Take Off Your Cool” with Norah Jones. Listeners note that the tracklisting here is confusing – #17 at first seemed to be a duet between Andre’s production and her piano skills that sounded like a high-octane version of “A Few of My Favorite Things.” The actual “Take Off My Cool” is track #18 though, where she does do her sing thing to the fullest. By “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre” at the end though when we’re treated to another of his far too rare raps, only one conclusion can be made about “The Love Below” – it’s Andre’s 80 minute long excuse to masturbate musically. Hip-Hop fans may be dissapointed and shocked to learn the more rap focused Big Boi album “Speakerboxxx” is nearly 20 minutes shorter. They won’t be dissapointed by the “GhettoMusick” found within though, where Big Boi cuts loose with the rap:

“Hot tub! Bad to the bony, I’m tony
As my grandmama, Edna Mae Kearse, she showed me
How to be the smooth operator, dominator in the state of Georgia
Hip-Hop’s there to destroy ya
Leave a motherfucker open like a foyer
He from the dirty, now here come the paranoia
A lawyer couldn’t object or disrespect
The technique, sweat meet, wipe off the sweat
Fight off the shit and flush the waste down
The pipes of my life flow deep into the ground
Why my purpose on the surface of this earth is
Plan it, standards, trust and the purpose
Campaign in vein for the same lame fame
People obtain, you ought to be detained
By the hip hop sheriff, locked up, no possibility
of gettin out because the shit you make is killin me
and my ears, and my peers
I hear the end is near, no fear, we disappear
Then reappear again in a fresh new light
I hope its peaceful and cloud, cause if not, we gotta fight”

Wooooooooo! Big Boi comes with fire and righteous indignation against whackness, and flows like the Niagara in the process. Big Boi is definitely taking things serious on “Speakerboxxx,” and by his long seperate from Andre on this side by side double album seems even more sharply honed in the process. He comes WAY hard on “Unhappy”:

“First rule in this thang, never let ’em see you sweat
Never let ’em be a threat as your feelings you must protect ’em
As well as your rectum, must keep self out of harm
Out of danger’s way, let strangers play, while you graduate and move on
True happiness is not acquired, and you won’t find it for sale
Unless you in jail and try to get a bail bondsman to go on and post that bail
You would be happy as hell, you thought you was happy until that court date came
Cause you couldn’t abort that case, nobody to take your place
Family home is at stake, too late to escape and get on the run”

That’s not to say Big Boi can’t get smooth though. His current single “The Way You Move” is one of the slinkiest, funkiest, coolest things poppin’ on the airwaves today. Big Boi and Austin Powers have one thing in common – mojo and LOTS of it. He speaks with a cool composed calm all through this funked out horn-blowing track, and the two go together like cherry compote on New York cheesecake:

“Ready for action, nip it in the bud
We never relaxin, OutKast is everlastin
Not clashin, not at all
But see my nigga went to do a little actin
Now that’s for anyone askin, give me one pass ’em
Drip drip drop, there goes an eargasm
Now you cumin out the side of your face
We tappin right into your memory banks – thanks!
So click-it-or-ticket, let’s see your seat belt fastened
Trunk rattlin, like two midgets in the backseat rasslin’
Speakerboxxx vibrate the tag
Make it sounds like aluminum cans in a bag
But I know y’all wanted that 808
Can you feel that B-A-S-S bass?”

Yes we can Antwan, and thank you; because complete with Sleepy Brown on the hook this song truly is hip-hop aural sex. “Speakerboxxx” is clearly the down-to-earth half of this double set. His verbals attack the rising tension of broken families on “Rooster,” hammer out the desire to be the best on “Bust” with Killer Mike, and make shockingly astute political observations on the aptly titled “War”:

“I rap about, the Presidential election and the scandal
that followed, and we all watched the nation, as it swallowed
and chalked it up, basically America you got FUCKED
The media shucked and jived now we stuck – damn!
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 Al-Amin got life and Fred got dead, Hampton
To dampen the dream of all the Panthers
They got they answer for ransom
As we read together, as we dream together
Count your blessings whenever you feel that things won’t be no better
But it got to, you gave me this microphone so I must rock you
Your brainwaves, airwaves, energized and SHOCKED you
Y’all got me, well I got y’all, long as I know y’all listenin
I’ma always bring food for thought to the table in the kitchen
Now eat nigga!”

Big Boi brings an unparalleled intensity to “Speakerboxxx” with some of his most tightly constructed lyrics in all of OutKast’s history, and his impeccable breath control keeps his deep voice flowing smoothly. It’s not used strictly for serious topics though – he flips it and proves “he who lives in the upper room is never gullible” on “Church,” grinds out a heavy beat on “Tomb of the Boom” featuring Konkrete and Big Gipp, and even gets into a little “Flip Flop Rock” with Killer Mike and Jay-Z. This song got widely leaked on the air and the net, and it’s hard to say who spits more fire because as Big Boi so aptly puts it “we drop a little science off in every verse.” Hova fans will not be dissapointed though:

“When I’m in the mood I rock the S Dot tennis shoes
At the interlude, I got the Gucci flip-flops
And I, fix it up like gin and juice when I’m them interviews
dudes wanna know what he copped
And where you got that, and how could they buy that
Where the million dollar watch at, stop that!
Why that, why this, niggaz wanna hijack the flyness
I’m on a whole ‘nother plane..”

As the “Speakerboxxx” half draws to a close with songs like the spiritual “Reset” featuring Cee-Lo and Khujo from the Goodie Mob and “Last Call” featuring Lil’ Jon and Slimm Calhoun, the listener and the reviewer alike will share one common thought – the two albums of this two disc set couldn’t be any MORE different than night and day. There’s a certain amount of irony here that Big Boi sounds stronger and more versatile given the chance to present himself seperately, while the untethered Andre 3000 is soaring into the stratosphere and at times is so distant it’s hard to relate to where he’s coming from. What “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” proves so perfectly is that what these two artists do best is work TOGETHER. While they co-produced this entire venture musically (and beatwise it does not slack) they don’t appear on each other’s albums except in the most minor of ways.

In conclusion, out of this double album project “Speakerboxxx” ends up sounding like the true OutKast album, with Andre 3000 just missing in action. Rated on it’s own, it would be another of their long list of rap classics. Paired with “The Love Below” it’s something different altogether, since that album has many of the same problems Common Sense did with “Electric Circus.” No one faults a hip-hop artist for being creative and experimental, but if not done carefully it can take them too far afield from the core sound that first made them popular. Big Boi can probably bring Andre back to the fold if they can the side projects and 3000 managed to exorcise most of his Prince/P-Funk demons in one shot. If not, this will be the start of a successful solo rap career for Patton, and the start of a much less successful (although still musically intriguing) singing career for Benjamin. Don’t misunderstand – this double CD/LP is still a must have for any OutKast fan and the Big Boi disc is a must for any rap fan, but clearly they need to get it back together and soon. The chi has been broken, and yin and yang are FAR out of balance.

OutKast :: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
8Overall Score
The Love Below - Music7
The Love Below - Lyrics7
Speakerboxxx - Music8.5
Speakerboxxx - Lyrics9.5