On 'Idlewild,' OutKast Duo Is Out of Sync and Out of Luck
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
You OutKast fans didn't really think it would last forever, did you?
By this, I don't mean OutKast itself -- even if the Atlanta hip-hop duo has been dogged by breakup rumors for most of this millennium, and deservedly so.
I mean the group's incredible streak of classic CDs, which now comes to an abrupt halt with the release of "Idlewild."
Tied to a film of the same name, the album is actually pretty good. But OutKast isn't supposed to do pretty good. It's supposed to do great , and anything that falls short is a failure.
Such is the standard Andre Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000) and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton have set for themselves over the past dozen years, a period during which they've assembled one of hip-hop's greatest and deepest discographies. The catalogue culminated with a terrific trio of innovative albums, 1998's "Aquemini," 2000's "Stankonia" and 2003's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" -- the last of which was a commercial and critical smash that pulled off the rarest of doubles: Not only did it win the Grammy for album of the year, but it also finished atop the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop critics' poll. ("Stankonia," too, topped Pazz and Jop, but it merely won the Grammy for rap album of the year.)
There will be no such plaudits for "Idlewild."
For all of its flashes of greatness -- the brassy marching-band rap of "Morris Brown," the psychedelic hip-hop flashback "Train," the Stevie Wonder-inspired acoustic blues number "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry 'Bout Me)" -- the staggeringly eclectic "Idlewild" includes too much filler and too many outright stink bombs to deserve a place alongside the best pop offerings of 2006, let alone "Aquemini," et al.
There's also no single track as electrifying as 2003's "Hey Ya!" -- a brilliant single that became so pervasive that its exhortation to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" wound up being quoted by CEOs on Wall Street.
In "Idlewild" the movie, which opens Friday, Andre and Big Boi star as Prohibition-era musicians fighting off gangsters who want to take control of their speakeasy. On the album, Big Boi stars as an inspired, scene-stealing rapper who remains keenly interested in his craft, while Andre co-stars as a distracted, somewhat indifferent rapper who would rather sing and dabble in retro styles, from ragtime to swing. "Hey, let's make a musical!" Benjamin sings.
It's a radically different notion of "old-school," Christina Aguilera's recent time warp notwithstanding. But it tends to come across as forced and awkward. On "Hollywood Divorce," for instance, Benjamin croons the chorus like a bad Sinatra impersonator and winds up killing a song that features a great verse by the ascendant guest rapper Lil' Wayne.
It would be an overstatement to say that Benjamin and Big Boi are fighting for control of OutKast, but it's clear that the creative schism that's always separated them has become something of a canyon.
Andre and Big Boi rarely work together anymore. Generally, they contribute their own songs -- or, in the case of "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," full separate discs.
No longer "two dope boys in a Cadillac," they've become a broken caravan: They rarely conduct interviews together, and they don't tour as OutKast. With Andre eschewing the road, Big Boi is left to go it alone -- as referenced on his P.M. Dawn-like track, "Train," with a sidekick noting that Big Boi will "hit the stage by himself and still rock."
It's to the point now that it's news when OutKast reunites for a song on its own album, as was the case with "Idlewild's" lukewarm first single, "Mighty 'O.' " Billed as the first track in six years to feature raps by both Big Boi and Andre, the "Minnie the Moocher"-cribbing tune falls flat.
A far more successful "Idlewild" collaboration is "Morris Brown," a dynamic hip-hop drum-line track that was produced by Benjamin and spotlights Big Boi's rapid-fire rhymes.
It's one of Andre's finest moments on the album, along with the funky "Idlewild Blue." Too often, though, he scratches an experimentation itch and proffers half-baked ideas -- chief among them the CD's dark and meandering nine-minute finale. Then again, it's fully appropriate that OutKast's most disappointing album ends this way: The downer of a song is entitled "Bad Note."