The Inevitable Outkst Column
Last Sunday, I surrendered. It was a long, lingering war, waged against Top Forty radio, golden Grammy trophies, and a PR firm that assumed complete control of my car stereo’s seek button. At first, I stood my ground, flipping the dial when my enemy’s first single hit the air and ignoring the buzz that seemed to boil from within the high-powered hip-hop underground. Soon realizing my efforts were increasingly futile, I began to run, relying on Sirius Radio and Apple I-Tunes to provide a musical safe-haven of sorts. But, finally, after months of resistance, this March turned into my Mayday: I caved in bought the new Outkast album.
It was a long time coming. Sometime in September, a slim, catchy single crept into my pop cultural cranium. Reaching ubiquitous status at a rapid pace, the single soon revealed its twin brother, controlling both "the way you move" and how we all say "hay." Somehow managing to flirt with all sorts of radio formats, these sexy twins fulfilled any producer’s fantasy: simultaneously seducing both adult-contemporary and urban audiences. But it wasn’t the album’s funky underbelly or surprisingly serious production that convinced me to put down my jamband guard. No, it’s not even that this disc is catchy, credible, and currently half-price at my record store that ultimately allowed me to come out as a confident Outkast fan. Instead, I decided to wave my white-flag after learning that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below had something in common with pop-culture’s prettiest civil war: the Beatles’ White Album.
A long, flowering double disc collection, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is essentially two solo albums, crafted by Outkast’s polar-opposite poets: Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Sure, there are some co-writing credits and crossover appearances, but this two-disc set, as it was originally conceived, is actually a pair of albums, attached at the plastic spine as if it were Siamese-twins. Like the White Album, which placed four different artistic ambitions beneath one easily bankable brand name, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below lets two entirely different voices speak. Andre 3000 is more indebted to funk than fast-talking hip-hop, even forgetting to rap on his recent hit "Hey Ya." In contrast, Big-Boi bases his rhymes on urban beats, cleaning up "dirty south" rap for his suburban mall masses. Given their album’s extraordinary success, it also seems like Outkast has outgrown their original moniker, nurturing two breakout personalities and potential solo-careers simultaneously. But, for some intriguing reason, Outkast chose to remain under a single umbrella during their recent rise to the roof of Billboard’s charts.
In fact, Outkast’s ability to feign unity intrigued me to no end, just like the Beatles’ broken home output drew me in more than any of their divorce-court solo musings. Musical mastery aside, Outkast’s path is eerily familiar to the Fab Four’s. Originally playing fun, yet somewhat silly, songs both members of Outkast began to craft their own baroque personalities, eventually realizing that their visions differed more than Yoko and Wings. During their latter day disputes, the Beatles would often divide Paul and John’s songs on singles, making sure each author was awarded equal space on their two-sided 45-singles. Following a similar course of action, Outkast’s outspoken duo were humble enough, or more likely crafty enough, to approach their mega-success in a similar fashion: each rapper released only one of their singles for the double disc album. After all, celebrity unity is always more comforting (and profitable!) than spousal squabbling (just ask the Clintons).
But, for some reason, Outkast’s decision didn’t seem that unexpected when I first found out about the duo’s semi-estrangement. Then again, as opposed to rock and roll’s rigid definition of the band, hip-hop collectives have always been more flexible, allowing personalities in each posse to come and go as they please. Not only are hip-hop albums almost always communal affairs, but loose-unions like Wu-Tang Clan exist solely as a sign of familial support, allowing a particular group of artists to circumvent the media simultaneously from several angles. Oddly enough, this, at times clustered, community spirit is strangely reminiscent of the jamband mentality. With artists making guest spots at an increasingly rapid speed, your typical jamband performance almost seems naked without at least one special appearance (look at how much attention is awarded to Bonnaroo’s endless array of asterisks). Likewise, more and more each year, special "super-groups" have become the working-class jam musician’s favorite medium for artistic output. Last week, I attended a performance by the "Mardi Gras All-stars," a quintet whose marquee spent more time mentioning Meters and Soulive credits than actual artists names.
Grazing over rock and roll history, it’s interesting to explore the demise of the "rock and roll" unit over its lifespan. Sure, some bands crash and burn at a rapid speed, breaking up only in time reunite for an episode of Behind the Music. But most of rock and roll’s true warriors never really walk away from their bankable brand names. Bands like the Rolling Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, and the Beastie Boys have never officially parted ways. Yet each of these groups has taken several year hiatuses between recordings, group touring, and, I suspect, even communicating directly with one another. But, in many ways, the media blinks their eyes at these long breathers. During these un-official hiatuses, there is usually a plethora of side-projects, party appearances, and, unfortunately, self-indulgent interdisciplinary exercises. If Phish recorded at the Beastie Boy’s pace, we’d still be waiting for the follow up to Billy Breathes (The Boys released their last album in summer 1998). Yet rock and roll’s allotted breaks have also helped keep the genre glued together. After all, everyone changes his style at least somewhat every decade just to keep oneself feeling fresh. Heck, a decade ago my Bar-Mitzvah tape was the most heavily circulated bootleg in my basement. .
Recently, I read an article concerning Phish’s forthcoming album. In the interview, Trey mentioned that he is looking for what is uniquely Phish while writing this new disc, rather than songs that could be plugged into Trey Anastasio Band or Oysterhead’s set lists. During Phish’s White Album-like writing period, which in my mind lasted from Trey’s first solo foray to this past summer’s full-band reunion peak, Phish were functioning like the Beatles during their latter years. Each member of the Vermont quartet was slowly developing their own voice and wasn’t quite sure how to weave their new words into Phish’s vocabulary. Farmhouse functioned like a Trey solo album and, thus, sounds more similar to the guitarist’s self-titled disc than Rift or even Billy Breathes. While Phish’s hiatus seems to have buried any band notions of permanent breakup, the major problem after the group’s return was still a lack of cohesive vision. Essentially, Round Room had two creative voices and used ‘Phish’ to back these different concepts. Tracks like ‘Thunderhead’ and ‘Pebbles and Marbles’ play like a dialect of TAB tour, fitting, since that is where these songs learned to walk. Similarly, ‘Round Room’ could easily fit onto Mike Gordon’s Inside In album or, if slightly rearranged, his collaboration Clone. Though I always admired their sound, "First Tube," "Sand," and "Gotta Jibboo," never really gelled with Phish’s repertoire. However, within TAB’s context, these songs are among the big-band’s best. Yet, where Phish managed to find success this summer, is in a new style of performance that allowed each member of the group to speak, while remaining true to the concept of Phish as a group entity. It is only fitting that "Seven Below" became the group’s favorite post-hiatus jam vehicle; it’s one of Anastasio’s few flexible numbers that can only be played by Phish. The best part of the Beatles pre-breakup out put is that, despite their squabbling, the quartet learned how to use each other’s styles to suit their own visions’.
Outkast’s recent work is ambitious not only because of its cross-generation appeal, but because it sounds uniquely Outkast. Andre 3000 and Big Boi simply split their sound like a sandwich, which when put together still tastes like the duo’s usual delicious ingredients. Perhaps the model for all modern rock music, the Beatles also laid the blueprint for rock and roll’s grandest breakup: keep the idea of the Fab Four flourishing, while also laying the seeds for their successful solo career. So, if Outkast decide to film their next studio endeavor, start bootlegging now. In thirty years, you might have the first copy of "I Like the Way You Move…Naked."