The Brother’s Gotta Rap! The Brother’s Gotta Rap!

Class of 3000.jpg 

Charles Hughes writes:

It’s been a damn good year for OutKast’s Andre 3000, and – frankly – he needed it.  This appears counterintuitive at first, given that 2006 saw Andre (real name Andre Benjamin) and his partner Big Boi (nee Antwan Patton) release Idlewild, perhaps the most inventive and daring album of a very inventive and daring career, and the accompanying film that starred the duo as a pair of funky-fresh musicians whose 1930s juke joint helped Andre and Big Boi draw connections between past and present eras of African-American culture even more clearly.  It seemed a fine way to capitalize on the monumental popularity of their previous record, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, whose dual smashes – Andre’s “Hey Ya” and Big Boi’s “The Way You Move” – propelled them to a level of success that, even for hardcore ‘Kast-heads like myself, was unforeseeable.

Unfortunately, that level of success proved unrepeatable.  The album fizzled commercially, although I still argue for its merits as a work of creative experimentation that contains much more compelling music than the negative reaction would have you believe.  The Idlewild movie proved even more undistinguished, disappearing from theatres in just a few weeks.  Even considering the complicated content, it was a strangely precipitous drop for both releases, and – regardless of whether or not Idlewild deserved such ignominy – it definitely signaled that some sort of regrouping (both literally and figuratively) was in order for pop music’s most exciting creative force.

As OutKast hit these unforeseen icebergs, the widening creative gulf between the two halves of OutKast became more and more obvious.  Now, the difference between the two men’s creative approaches has been overstated, and the “Aquemini” magic of the partnership still burns brightly, but there’s no denying that Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton are walking down different paths, a separation only symbolized by their divided double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the success of which couldn’t mask the fact that Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx and Andre’s Love Below exist almost entirely independent of each other.  On that effort, and on Idlewild, Big Boi has only cemented his reputation as one of hip-hop’s most talented performers and producers, a hip-hop Ellington who packs his tracks with multiple layers of musical complexity and texture. 

Meanwhile, Andre has traveled a more esoteric path, parlaying his flower-funk image and increasing interest in rock and R&B vocal styles into a series of recordings that – for better or worse – seem intent on destroying genre categorization, or at least exposing its limits.  Whether the pop rush of “Hey Ya” or the juke stomp of “Idlewild Blue,” Andre Benjamin has aimed his bop gun on a constellation of pop and soul styles that, for a moment, helped him conquer the world.  But this came with costs: He temporarily wore the dreaded crown of “White People’s Favorite Rapper,” and – like most who actively seek to bust boundaries – he’s made the occasional misstep (you may remember the Indians-from-space motif he chose for his Grammy Awards performance of “Hey Ya,” which tainted a moment that should’ve been a triumphant coming-out party).

Most importantly, Andre 3000’s almost entirely stopped rhyming.  Where Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Patton once bounced off each other’s feverish flow into flights of lyrical fancy that seemed in a state of continual ascension, Andre now left almost all of the rap duties to his superbly talented partner, choosing to sing on practically all of his offerings to The Love Below and Idlewild.  Now, this worked about as well as could be hoped: It served to even further emphasize Big Boi’s remarkable talent, it made the rare Andre verses even more precious than they had been before, and – as we all learned so beautifully with “Hey Ya” – Andre proved to be a perfectly suitable rock-n-soul star.  It was nice, but it started to make less and less sense to those of us who remember the time when Southerplayalisticcadillacmuzik first announced the arrival of the two young princes (and maybe young Princes) into the hip-hop world, or the way that Andre’s deep, playful flow bounced across “Elevators,” “Rosa Parks” or “Ms. Jackson,” perfectly complementing the hooks’ infectious melodies.

Maybe Andre Benjamin himself felt, or at least understood, some of this. This year, Andre 3000 has returned to the rhyme with an astonishing slew of 16-bar lyrical symphonies, flawless performances that should be more than enough to remind any skeptic or hater that he’s still one of the very best in the game.  However, these verses haven’t been on a new OutKast record, or the long-rumored Andre solo project. Instead, they’ve been sprinkled across cuts by a variety of hip-hop’s top artists, often as part of “remix” versions that allow the hip-hop nation to conference, converse and cut heads. 

These verses, collected on the wondrous mixtape Whole Foods, include appearances on remixes of hits by UNK (“Walk It Out”), Rich Boy (“Throw Some Ds”) and Lloyd (“You), plus his contribution to the original version of tunes by Devin The Dude (“What A Job”), and the Mount Rushmore that is the stylish OutKast/UGK collaboration “International Players Anthem.” They all reveal one thing: As wildly imaginative, and occasionally frustrating, as Andre 3000’s creative journey has been, one thing that is absolutely unimpeachable is his mic skills, which remain as gritty, fresh and exciting as ever. 

Although all of these tracks deservedly have their partisans, I’m a particular fan of Andre’s verse on “What A Job,” which accomplishes a multitude of miracles: He seamlessly employs at least three different flows over the course of the verse, for example, and he constructs a coherent, essay-like 16 bars that manage to come off as profound rather than pretentious, significant but not self-important.  Most miraculous of all, he offers a criticism of “illegal” downloading that’s lucid, affecting and fair-minded.  Like all of the aforementioned appearances, it’s a veritable concerto. 

But wait a minute: Remember when I said that these skill-shredding spits do not appear on an Andre 3000 solo record?  I lied…sort of.  Yes, none of the verses that have remade his reputation among hip-hop heads have shown up on an official Andre 3000 release.  Still, history will show that Andre Benjamin did – in fact – put out a solo effort in 2007: the soundtrack to his idiosyncratic cartoon show Class Of 3000, which has received shockingly little attention, even in hip-hop circles.  (In fact, each of his remix appearances has received more press.)  Despite this lack of publicity, and the fact that no one will mistake this sunny collection of often kid-centric material to be Andre’s latest masterpiece, there is more than enough interesting music on Class Of 3000 to justify its consideration by those who enjoy any facets of Andre Benjamin’s wide-ranging talents. 

Although some of the tracks certainly qualify as side-project trifles, a few of them are something like remarkable.  “Throwdown” is a pulsating celebration of musical expression, complete with chorus of kids rpping their respective instruments. (It turns out that Mama don’t allow no turntablism ‘round here…but we’ve never cared what Mama don’t allow, have we?) Then there’s “We Want Your Soul,” a shockingly dark deconstruction that wouldn’t have sounded out of place amid the experimentation of The Love Below.  It’s an unsettling moment on a mostly joyous collection, but even “We Want Your Soul” includes Andre’s breathless shout-outs of “Get em, shorty” in the bridge and two main verses that could easily be elements of Andre’s next show-stopping guest spot.

Like any great artist, it remains to be seen where Andre 3000 will go next.  It’s by no means for certain that OutKast will remain together, and – whether or not they do – I find it doubtful that Andre will continue to keep pace with the innovative mastery of Big Boi, whose streak keeps getting hotter.  But all that’s in the future, and – as OutKast themselves taught us, on “Aquemini” – nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.  For right now, it’s enough for me to conclude that Andre 3000 seems to be in a very good place, balancing his boundless imagination with a firm grounding in the skillz that brought him such fame and glory.  Trust me, my friends: If he’s in a good place, then it is our right, our obligation and our infinite pleasure to follow him. 

Devin the Dude featuring Snoop Dogg and Andre 3000 “What a Job” from Waitin’ to Inhale (Rap-a-Lot, 2007)

Andre Benjamin “Throwdown” and “We Want Your Soul” from Class of 3000: Music Volume 1 (La Face, 2007)

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