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Rant #295
(published September 14, 2006)
By The Time It Reach Hollywood, It's Over
by Noah Berlatsky
"Baby boy, you only funky as your last cut / you focus on your past your ass will be a has what," Andre 3000 rapped on Outkast's 1998 "Rosa Parks," shortly before a bluesy harmonica break that could easily have been recorded 50 years earlier. That sums Outkast up; on the one hand, Dre and his partner Big Boi have been obsessively forward-looking, changing their image and sound with a calculated frequency that would make David Bowie blush (if he still had a sense of shame.) On the other hand, they are one of the most historically-minded groups in hip hop, raiding the past not just for samples, but for collaborators (like George Clinton), musical ideas, and lyrical themes. In fact, it's their command of the past that has allowed Outkast to shift so easily from gangstas to Afrofutrists to pop stars to Eccentric Genius (Dre on his solo "The Love Below") or Keep-It-Real lifer (Big Boi on his solo Speakerboxxx.). Each of these identities is a costume; Dre and Big Boi try them on with reverence, mockery, and a remarkable amount of intelligence. Then they move on to something else.

It was probably inevitable that Outkast's theatrical bent would land them in an actual film. Idlewild, the movie, is set in the Depression-era South, and features Big Boi and Dre playing 1930s versions of themselves. The album of the same name isn't a soundtrack, but is based on the situations and characters in the film.

For a group that's impossible to categorize, OutKast has enjoyed almost miraculous commercial and critical success. Gangstas and the underground, urban teens and white kids from Long Island — everybody loves them. Until now. To no one's surprise, the film has been roundly panned. But critics don't like the album either. The good folks at PopMatters says there are only a "handful of excellent songs spread over 25 tracks," and that seems to be the general consensus. Though the disk has its moments, its unfocused, meandering, and padded with filler.

Or so the story goes. To my ears, the truth is somewhat different. In the first place, Idlewild is anything but unfocused; on the contrary, it's the most unified album of OutKast's career. In fact, it's that rarity in rap, an actual concept album, held together not just by skits and lyrical content, but by musical style.

Many commentators have pointed out that, inspired by the film's milieu, Dre and Boi have set out to craft a sound that blends 1930s music with contemporary rap. Thus, the album's first single, "The Mighty O", is built around Dre's imitation of Cab Calloway's famous vocal from "Minnie the Moocher" — "PJ and Rooster" makes the strut of vaudeville indistinguishable from the strut of Southern rap.

The '30s references are important in anchoring the album, but they hardly suggest the limits of the duos ambitions. Dre and Big Boi aren't merely trying to evoke one earlier era; instead, they seem set on summarizing and celebrating the entire history of black music in this century. "Idlewild Blue", for example, starts off with a nice acoustic, Robert Johnson-esque blues run — but from there it opens up into a funky strut copped from Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." The lift is direct enough that the song could almost be a cover of the Wonder tune; yet, the groove is dirtier and less ethereal than the original. The result is more commentary than homage; a demonstration of exactly how the blues influenced Wonder's song-writing — while, not incidentally, putting both back onto contemporary radio playlists. Another album single, "Morris Brown," is even more startling. Marching band horns and drums are stirred, chopped, and diced — until they end up sounding bizarrely like Prince's psychedelic masterpiece, the song "Around the World in a Day."

Dre is responsible for "Idlewild Blue," and co-wrote the music for "Morris Brown." This is as expected: it's Dre who, in the past, has been credited with Outkast's more experimental and mercurial moments. Certainly, this album continues to prove that Dre is unique in pop music —no other artist I can think of (with the possible exception of Johnny Cash) has been so willing to appear ridiculous. On this album, as on "The Love Below," Dre has chosen to largely abandon his dazzling, rapid-fire rapping — instead he sings, with wavering (albeit characterful) incompetence. As if that isn't bad enough, many of his tracks on this album resolutely abandon any sort of street credibility. On "When I Look in Your Eyes," he comes across like an oily cabaret singer backed by a absolutely traditional small-band arrangement. "Makes No Sense At All", with its multi-tracked chipmunk vocals, giggles, and mindless lyrics ("razzamatazz, thingamajig, whatchamacallit...bullshit!") seem scientifically calculated to piss critics off. If you take your pop so seriously that you don't find this funny, I can't help you — though I can point out that Kevin Kendricks' fierce ragtime-meets-fusion keyboard on "Makes No Sense At All" is almost enough to make me believe that jazz still has a future.

"Chronomentrophobia" is even better; Dre starts out singing like an off-kilter Marvin Gaye over a burping back-beat which manages to suggest a clock without sounding anything like one. Dre then switches to rap, but instead of his super-charged, take-no-prisoners style, he speaks relatively slowly, sounding tongue-tied vulnerable and awkward. "It's beginning to look a lot like the ending...now I'm dead/remember what I said/I'm gone. Bow your heads." It's a perfect little miracle — a somber hip hop song that doesn't slip into either thugged-out self-pity or squishy social commentary (like Stankonia's lame-ass "Toilet Tisha".)

"Chronomentrophobia" isn't the only song on the album to reflect on time and — especially — dissolution. "Till we reach the end/just stay strong and be a friend," the chorus sings on "Peaches;" on "The Train" Big Boi raps "See the second hand won't ever stop and neither will the clock, That nigga Big hit the stage by himself and still rock." The constant talk of endings, and the fact that Dre and Big Boi work on most of the tracks separately, has led to a lot of speculation that Outkast may be about to break-up. That may be — and yet, despite their clearly divergent interests, the duo's aesthetics seem more closely aligned than ever. For the first time, Big Boi seems as eclectic, as adventurous and (almost) as loopy as his partner. He, too, deftly swings from the 30s to the oughts, encompassing everything in between. "N2U" shows that Prince is not just Andre's obsession; "The Train" deftly weds big band horns to a gorgeous, meditative 70s lope. "Mutron Angel", featuring Whild Peach, sounds like gospel-meets-fusion, and yet manages not to suck — no mean feat. The stand-out track, though, is "Call the Law", a song I was convinced was by Dre till I read the liner notes. Janelle Monae starts out singing in a convincing Broadway/vaudeville style; halfway through she moves seamlessly into Aretha-style, soulful testifying, then goes back to something halfway between the two. The backbeat is syncopated in a way that sounds entirely like hip-hop, yet also manages to suggest ragtime. It's a tour-de-force, and proves once and for all that it's not only Dre who's looking forward — or looking back, for that matter.

Great as all of these songs are, I think my favorite moment on the album is still "Hollywood Divorce," probably the track most similar to Outkast's earlier albums. A meditation on faithlessness — of politicians, mates, and fans — it features Snoop Dogg delivering a stoned, cold rap that seethes with barely checked bile — reminding us once again that he really is slumming when he fucks around with the Pussycat Dolls. It also has Dre's only rap in his old style. But it ends with him not rapping, or talking, but speaking. "All the fresh styles always start off as a good lil' hood thang. Look at Blues, Rock, Jazz...Rap. I ain't even talkin' about music, everything else too. By the time it reach Hollywood it's over. But it's cool, we just keep it goin'. Make new shit." This may be Outkast's epitaph, or they may just be playing dead. Either way, Idlewild stands with their very best work — which is to say that it's one of the most exciting and inspired albums in popular music. Do yourself a favor: ignore the haters, and pick it up.

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