suspect that most rap fans of the “echo” generation, those children of the baby boomers born in the mid-to-late eighties, feel a strong affection towards OutKast. It’s borne partly out of timing—we started buying our own rap records right as Big Boi and Andre kicked their space program of MIR funk, streets-meets-magnet-school dualism and gurgling Organized Noise production into high orbit. The affection is also there because, like kids growing older, they took a very simple existence and watched it become lot more complicated. Even though they started by twisting around the same tropes—oily, wistful gutter rhetoric with a dash of the extraterrestrial—they eventually pulled away from one another on wax.
Andre, always the more comfortable one when it came to rapping from the interior spaces, began tempering his already breezy, witty, almost demure political side with grand pop-rock flings. Big Boi didn’t widen his vision—he just kept finding new and genuinely clever ways of discussing his omnipresent concerns: how to balance baby mommas, kryptonite reefer, space travel, and, as he rapped on their debut, “all that other fat shit.” The tension flared up as the two tried to reconcile twin romantic visions of almost every filthy landscape between gutter and night sky. We were there to scoop up Aquemini’s burst hallucinogens and the hottest fragments of Stankonia.
We saw their powers rise, crest, and—lately—diverge. Because, as every recent interview has re-hashed, Big Boi and Andre only really have each other in common anymore.
Luckily, their dissipating energies do give Idlewild, the soundtrack to their much-delayed ‘30s revivalist cinematic ballad, fuel to burn a few new lights. “Morris Brown,” is sweet hometown love-letter and platonic, sepia-toned chestnut. For the first time in recent pop music history, a marching band sample manages to sound restrained, the cymbal collisions never overwhelming Purple Ribbon songstress Scar’s dainty, nostalgic, suddenly wacky hook, “you can’t make the world go ‘round / Where it goes, you just don’t know / Life is like a marching band, baby!” “Hollywood Divorce” skips along on a heaven-sent synth while Big Boi, Andre, Lil’ Wayne, and Snoop divvy up the bars.
Andre continues The Love Below’s Sinatra talk, steering a bride on “Hollywood Wedding” to “Promise me you won’t ball / Promise me you’ll invest three fourths of it all / For what? So your kids’ kids’ kids can have some cheese.” In what brief raps of his there are on the album, Andre seethes with a departing man’s rage. He sounds like he’s simultaneously going after crack-rap (repeated directions to get off the pipe), the black entertainment establishment (“You can either go to hell / Or go to Yale”), and even liberal sacred cows—he tells black folks to get off Welfare (“Mighty O”).
We know Andre hates being pegged down, “End of the story, go fly a kite / Category: ain’t got none, you know I’m right.” And it’s not that we can’t appreciate his commitment to reinterpreting supper club horn sections and worn-in, woman-you-done-me-wrong choruses. We just know, abstractly, his greatest art is rapping. That’s it. His skill-set is admirably diverse, but it’s certainly not balanced. These same excursions and indulgent pitfalls mean Idlewild fails in the same places as Speakerboxxx/The Love Below: both feature some stunningly flat crooning and poor pop revisions straight from the mind, body, and soul of Andre Benjamin.
But where Andre previously tried to slip into the odd Prince/Marc Bolan/Sly mold, now he’s obsessed with something even older: besides the caustic, celebratory verses, “Mighty ‘O’” undulates with a jacked Cab Calloway hook and broiled tom-tom. After that one sweeping ride it’s mostly pat, re-hashed tin-pan alley vocals (“Call the Law,” “When I Look in Your Eyes”) that, along with the withered electric piano froth of “See You in My Dreams” and “Life Is Like a Musical” plunge Idlewild into long stretches (i.e. most of the album’s second half) of teeth-gnashing monotony.
Big Boi doesn’t help. He too often settles for talking trash about ex-wives and guys he might have to beat up at the bar. On the burbling, heart-burn plop of “Buggface,” Big Boi gives us a peek into his heart, “what if everything you ever knew or known was a lie?” Perhaps a bit paranoid, perhaps a bit fed up with Andre, perhaps just in the skin of the film’s character, his infrequent trips to the personal are a refreshing tease. Because while Andre at least trudges along with his mid-life crisis / ‘30s tribute, Big Boi rarely digs any deeper. He can only serve up barely bawdy stones of funk (“N2U,” “Peaches”) as he crunches into establishment living, “I made a change / Like the diaper on the bottom of my baby daughter / I wasn’t ready to be no father, maybe, kinda, sorta.”
Babies, old-men, and saying goodbye all take up lots of space on Idlewild—more than a handful of songs have characters thanking each other before riding off into the sunset. Moments like that, fictional or not, have to resonate with some confession and humanity—for all the honest contemporary talk about track records and artistic debt and tension and duality and eclectic, world-beating convergence, a drained OutKast lets the album’s twenty five tracks just hover around the unsaid.