To call OutKast's follow-up to their 2000 masterpiece Stankonia the most eagerly awaited hip-hop album of the new millennium may be hyperbole, but not by much. In its kaleidoscopic, deep-fried amalgam of Dirty South, dirty funk, techno, and psychedelia, Stankonia was fearlessly exploratory and giddy with possibilities. It was hard to imagine where the duo was going to go next, but one possibility that few entertained was that Big Boi and Andre 3000 would split apart, each recording an album on his own and then releasing the pair as the fifth OutKast album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, in the fall of 2003. Although both albums have their own distinct character, the effect is kind of like if the Beatles issued The White Album as one LP of Lennon tunes, the other of McCartney songs -- the individual records may be more coherent, but the illusion that the group can do anything is tarnished. By isolating themselves from each other, Big Boi and Andre 3000 diminish the idea of OutKast slightly, since the focus is on the individuals, not the group. Which, of course, is part of the point of releasing solo albums under the group name -- it's to prove that the two can exist under the umbrella of the OutKast aesthetic while standing as individuals. Thing is, while it would have been a wild, bracing listen to hear these 39 songs mixed up, alternating between Boi and Dre cuts, the two albums do prove that the music can be solo in execution but remain OutKast records through and through. Both records are visionary, imaginative listens, providing some of the best music of 2003, regardless of genre. If conventional wisdom, based on their public personas and previous music, held that Big Boi's record, Speakerboxxx, would be the more conventional of the two and Andre 3000's The Love Below the more experimental, that doesn't turn out to be quite true. From the moment Speakerboxxx kicks into gear with "GhettoMusick" and its relentless blend of old-school 808s and breakneck breakbeats, it's clear that Boi is ignoring boundaries, and the rest of his album follows suit. It's grounded firmly within hip-hop, but the beats bend against the grain and the arrangements are overflowing with ideas and thrilling, unpredictable juxtapositions, such as how "Bowtie" swings like big-band jazz filtered through George Clinton, how "The Way You Move" offsets its hard-driving verses with seductive choruses, or how "The Rooster" cheerfully rides a threatening minor-key mariachi groove, salted by slippery horns and loose-limbed wah-wah guitars. It's a hell of a ride, reclaiming the adventurous spirit of the golden age and pushing it into a new era.
By contrast, The Love Below isn't so much visionary as it is unapologetically eccentric. And as the cocktail jazz pianos that sparkle through the first few songs indicate, it's not much of a hip-hop album. Instead, Andre 3000 has created the great lost Prince album -- the platter that the Purple One recorded somewhere between Around the World in a Day and Sign 'o' the Times. It's not just that the music and song titles cheekily recall Prince -- "She Lives in My Lap" is a close relation of the B-side "She's Always in My Hair" -- it's that Dre disregards any rules on a quest to create his own interior world, right down to a dialogue with God. The difference between Andre 3000 and Prince is in that dialogue, too: Prince was tortured; Andre is trying to get laid. That cheerfully randy spirit surges through The Love Below, even on the spooky-serious closer, "A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre," and it gives Andre the freedom to try a little of everything, from mock crooning on "Love Haters" to a breakbeat jazz interpretation of "My Favorite Things" to the strange one-man funk of "Roses" and the incandescent "Hey Ya!," where classic soul and electro-funk coexist happily. So, both records are very different, but the remarkable thing is, they both feel thoroughly like OutKast music. Big Boi and Andre 3000 took off in different directions from the same starting point, yet they wind up sounding unified because they share the same freewheeling aesthetic, where everything is alive and everything is possible within their music. That spirit fuels not just the best hip-hop, but the best pop music, and both Speakerboxxx and The Love Below are among the best hip-hop and best pop music released this decade. Each is a knockout individually, and paired together, their force is undeniable. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine