No success like failure

By FRANKLIN SOULTS  |  October 3, 2006
061006_outkast_main
FLYING?: OutKast’s confusing eclecticism attests to a strained relation with the “Ghetto Musick” they once celebrated and ambivalence about their own career.
Of course, it’s not clear that Andre 3000 and Big Boi will get there themselves. After the divisions of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — a double album featuring one all-but-solo disc per rapper — the Idlewild project prevaricates about the group’s future while limning the tension between Andre 3000’s dream of flying and Big Boi’s loyalty to home more explicitly than ever. Whereas the Idlewild movie distills that tension with period-piece fantasy and genre-picture clichés, the album deals with it every which way but loose. Some numbers stick to the script with anachronistic bastardizations of 1930s styles, from blues to jazz to Cab Calloway swing; others provide meta-commentary on the film, the crew’s story, and the wider world with just about every other black style between then and now: R&B, gospel, a marching band, even moments of straight Southern hip-hop. The array is exhausting, but as much as any rapsterpiece you can name, it also proves that generations of black-music history can fit under hip-hop’s low-slung hoodie.

Still, like its most salient precedent, Prince’s 1986 album Parade and movie Under the Cherry Moon, the project has faltered critically and flopped commercially because reaching for the past requires the artists to loosen their grip on the present. What’s more, Andre 3000 has finally been stymied by his pessimism, even while Big Boi remains as inspired as ever (if not more so). For all their invention, a sense of futility hangs over most of Andre 3000’s structurally foreshortened solo numbers, as “an angel dies” even when our hero escapes a constricting world, and the promise that “Life Is a Musical” ends in a “Hollywood Divorce.” (“All the fresh styles start out as a good little hood thing . . . but by the time it reaches Hollywood it’s over.”) That number also features Lil’ Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Big Boi musing over divorce as reality and metaphor, a theme that Big Boi returns to in some of the album’s best cuts: the quick-stepping yet downcast “Peaches,” the crunk/jump blues “Call the Law” (featuring singer Janelle Monae as the jilted wife), and especially the lovely yet wrenching rhythm-and-pop song “The Train,” a recap of the crew’s career that may be the best thing Big Boi has written. These suggest that if Big Boi is staying close to the hood, he’s leaving behind the destructive allure of playing a hood and finding his own fragile peace in the struggle between integration and independence, a struggle that defines not only OutKast’s two-headed persona but hip-hop at the top of the pops, not to mention black America in the post-civil-rights era.

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