Giving Big Boi (and genre) his due

Brian Gresko over at The Atlantic has a nice look at Big Boi and André 3000 six years after Idlewild, OutKast’s last album. Like most of us, Gresko expected André, source of OutKast’s most innovative and eccentric stylistic and musical experiments, to be the one to blow us away with his solo career. Instead, André has spent his time acting and working in fashion, while Big Boi has released several solid solo albums. Gresko notes, too, that in retrospect, Big Boi brought more to the OutKast partnership than critics initially recognized:

I had assumed that André, a multi-instrumentalist, piloted OutKast not just lyrically but also in sound, on tracks that married disparate styles (funk, gospel, drum and bass, rock) to dirty beats studded with keyboards. Yet in 2003, when the duo released two solo albums under the OutKast name—Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx and André 3000’s The Love Below—this turned out to not be the case. André’s album ranged far and wide musically, for sure. A chameleon, he changed appearance from song to song, leaving the restraints of hip-hop behind in favor of jazz and funk, crooning far more than he rapped. Though, as the title suggests, André unified The Love Below around lust and romance, his peripatetic approach made for a sprawling, disjointed mess of an album. Aside from the infectious “Hey Ya!” and a handful of other tracks—”Spread,” “Roses”—the songs were forgettable, overly long, and sometimes even corny.

Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx sounded more like an OutKast album, if one a bit heavier on the gospel and soul samples. The first single, “The Way You Move,” was almost as big a hit as “Hey Ya!” though being a hip-hop track, it lacked the ubiquity of Dre’s three-minute masterpiece. Over the years, I’ve often returned to Speakerboxxx, while The Love Below, which on its release captivated many critics with its bold vision of a post-genre pop future, I rarely revisit.

I have to admit to gravitating toward Speakerboxxx even when it first came out, and feeling a bit like a philistine because the critical attention was all on André and The Love Below. But then, I grew up in Atlanta and will always have a special place in my heart for southern hip hop. Big Boi’s tracks serve as a sort of musical comfort food in a way that André’s don’t.

Gresko connects Big Boi’s post-OutKast success to the shifting status of genre in our critical assessment of pop culture:

With these albums, Big Boi has come out from André’s shadow, not by doing anything different, but by doing what he does really well. The film critic Manny Farber’s essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” comes to mind, as André and Big Boi seem to epitomize these two styles of art. White Elephant Art is big, made up of grandiose gestures, meant to be taken by others as a masterwork. Think of the self-important Hollywood blockbusters on serious topics (Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Lincoln), or the fat tomes of “literary” novels that deal with heavy issues (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom)—works that, no matter how well done, become “a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition,” and collapse under their own weight—just like André’s The Love Below

In recent years, termite artists have garnered greater attention and acclaim. Genre has stopped being a bad word, as we’ve recognized that not only is there nothing wrong with entertainment, but that these works of art can tell us important things about ourselves, our culture, and our world without being self-conscious about doing so. Critically acclaimed filmmakers helm James Bond flicks—most recently Sam Mendes on Skyfall—or take on superhero films, like Chris Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. In the writing world, the master of horror, Stephen King, received the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, and now lands short stories in the literary-minded New Yorker. So, too, has Big Boi risen in estimation. He is now recognized as a dexterous, clever rapper who distills a wide array of musical styles into catchy dance tunes and hip-hop anthems. His reputation has caught up with André’s.

I think there’s also something to be said about the relationship of New Yorker-type critics to hip hop–the assumption that Big Boi is clearly lagging behind André in the reputation department implies a fairly limited engagement with the broader field of hip hop. The critical realization that genre works can be interesting, transformative, and culturally important seems a bit slow on the uptake, but at least we’re finally getting somewhere.

I’ve got Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city on repeat right now (I nearly always binge on new things–I’ve been accused of having the media-consumption habits of an 8-year-old), but I think I’ll add Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors to the rotation.

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