Before we begin, I should make my bias completely clear – Outkast are my favourite group of all time.
There is nothing I want to happen in music more than an Outkast comeback. Since that looks less likely with every passing year, I’d settle for Andre 3000 and Big Boi shining individually, even if it absolutely breaks my heart that they aren’t working together anymore.
So was I thrilled when Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors turned out to be one of the most ambitious, progressive albums to be released in any genre this year?
That Big Boi took another leap out of his former partner in rhyme’s shadow?
Even more so.
The Playa and Poet analogy often used to describe the duo’s contrasting personalities has always felt overly simplistic, even though it does contain at least a grain of truth – 3000’s inherent weirdness has always worked best when grounded by his partner’s more earthly sensibilities. My issue is that it relegates Big Boi to the role of mere straight man, when virtually anyone would appear orthodox next to the maelstrom of oddity that is Andre Benjamin.
On his first proper solo album, 2010’s stellar Sir Luscious Left Foot, Big Boi proved that Three Stacks wasn’t the only ATLien who could stray from the conventional and this album continues in that vein. Whether rapping over the funk of SLLF or the experimental sounds that pervade much of this recent release, he is utterly incapable of being anything less than compelling while on the mic. In fact, when you really think about it, has there ever been a more consistent rapper?
The net has been thrown far and wide for this record and the supporting cast reads like a Pitchfork festival line-up. It could have resulted in messy dissonance, but everything is knitted into a comforting patchwork by Big Boi’s nimble flow and commanding presence. On “The Thickets” he provides a triumphant reminder of his own legacy with the aid of a buttery hook from longtime cohort Sleepy Brown. The veteran brings A$AP Rocky along for the beguiling “Lines”, which is anchored by a melancholy hook from Sarah Barthel of the electronic rock duo Phantogram. It’s one of a number of songs that mesh together contrasting styles and still manage to feel natural, when they could very easily have ended up sounding like an awkward mash-up. “Thom Pettie” is another genre-bending effort, as Killer Mike and the brilliant Swedish band Little Dragon ride with Big Boi across an electronic sea of pulsating synths that ebb and flow wonderfully.
There’s still some room for rap with the power to incite a riot amongst the avant-garde fare being offered. T.I. and Ludacris get involved on “In the A”, a ferocious hometown anthem that batters your eardrums into submission. Big Boi really flexes here, switching up his flow for fun, and in turn forcing his guests to elevate their own bars and spit like it’s the early 2000s again.
Sadly, not all of the collaborations work so well. Rock band Wavves and the perennially disappointing B.o.B. appear on “Shoes for Running”, a nauseatingly sweet track that must have turned up to the wrong address. Big Boi and Kid Cudi have both done so much to blur the boundaries of modern rap and the two collaborating on “She Hates Me” is full of promise, but the song fails to deliver and the end result is surprisingly forgettable.
The plethora of guests scattered throughout the album doesn’t stop the host from getting deeply personal, arguably more so than ever before. The high point comes when the rapper is at his lowest ebb as he mourns his father’s passing on the beautifully tender “Descending”. His voice is little more than a wounded croak and words spill out before they’ve fully formed over the soft, contemplative strings, supported by the soothing vocals of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano. It feels slightly intrusive to hear such a strong individual at his most vulnerable, but it results in one of the most moving songs released this year.
The album opens and closes with Big Boi saying, “If y’all don’t know me by now, y’all ain’t gon’ never know me”. He may never achieve the fame of Andre 3000, yet he seems comfortable in the knowledge that his talents haven’t faded at all, despite rapping for almost two decades now. Even those that have been paying attention since 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik will find new ways to be astonished by one half of the mighty Outkast with this latest release, as he proves again that he is so much more than the straight man.