Not Fade Away: ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ Was OutKast’s Last Conversation
By Paul de Revere
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the double LP with Big Boi and André 3000 each essentially doing their own solo album. But are they as separate as they once were? This just might be the last time the two were really talking to each other. The album turns 10 today.
Maybe it’s hard to see, 10 years removed through rose-tinted glasses, but in the months leading up to the release of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the famed OutKast split double album “could have been a recipe for disaster.” Or so said New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh.
Coming off the critical and commercial success of 1998’s Aquemini and 2000’s Stankonia, halving the best Southern rap duo in history into separate creative visions on one double record seemed like, at best, an unnecessary risk. At worst, a biblical, King Solomon-like proposition, cleaving the OutKast “baby” in two, pleasing no one and horrifying all.
Luckily, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below turned out to be more of a successful, even gleeful experiment. AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine described the album as a White Album-type of collaboration, “as one LP of Lennon tunes, the other of McCartney songs,” seemingly furthering the traditional OutKast narrative of the player (Big Boi) and the poet (André 3000). That’s OutKast, right?
Look closer at that dichotomy on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below ten years later and it isn’t so clear-cut. Speakerboxxx finds Big Boi not always engaged in the “player” chicanery and for every rousing “GhettoMusick” (co-produced by and featuring André 3000) there’s a track like “The Way You Move,” Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s second single, coasting by all breezy with acoustic guitar and horns. “Church” (another Andre 3000 co-production credit) deals with life’s big questions (“Why are we here? What the meanin’ to all of this?”) with black-church wisdom and an uptempo gospel breakdown. To be sure, the “player” shows serious range on Speakerboxx.
“Poet” André 3000’s The Love Below is basically a late-’70s/early-’80s Prince record. That’s the meat of it, anyway, and it’s appropriately freaky-funky for André. But smash hit “Hey Ya” (with a Big Boi credit) is more visceral and fun than anything on Speakerboxxx. “Roses” (with a Big Boi feature) plays like classic OutKast. The stream-of-consciousness “A Life in the Day of Andre Benjamin (Incomplete)” outdistances any Speakerboxxx track in terms of lyrical prowess. There’s no lack of collaboration and melding of aesthetics here. But André’s riffs on jazz and classic pop (The Love Below’s Burt Bacharach-like titular intro, the Cab Calloway-like smack talkin’ of “Love Hater,” André’s interpolation of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”) shows he’s in his own, post-hip-hop world.
OutKast left quite a legacy with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, influencing not just Southern rap but the whole of music. The LP won 2004’s Album of the Year GRAMMY, the second rap album to date to do so (the other being The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999) and the first and only to date for a hip-hop duo or group. It’s also the best-selling rap album to date at about 11x platinum (that is, 5.5 million units sold of a double record). Artists in the Dungeon Family (Killer Mike, Janelle Monae, Cee-Lo), Southern rap (Big K.R.I.T.) and the rap world (Kendrick Lamar) have obviously taken notes. But so have artists of the jam-band circuit (Galactic), the world of hard rock/heavy metal (Incubus, Linkin Park) and legacy artists like Memphis soul legend Booker T (who covered “Hey Ya” on his comeback 2009 release Potato Hole). So while Speakerboxxx/The Love Below has been influential, how has OutKast’s legacy fared over the years?
André hasn’t exactly done his fair share of the heavy lifting, musically speaking. Big Boi has gone the more orthodox hip-hop route with solo records, guest-verse features, hip-hop radio airplay and touring. In contrast, André has peeked his head up occasionally, getting his money right with commercial, film and television roles and mostly unheralded guest-verse features for remixes and original songs, most notably in 2012 on T.I.’s “Sorry” (off Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head)
Andre’s verse was an apology of sorts to Big Boi for the personal, professional and creative rift that began to show on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It’s a heartfelt reflection that with ten years of hindsight makes the split double record seem like the last time André and Big Boi really spoke to each other creatively, Idlewild included.
“This the type of shit that’ll make you call your rap partner and say ‘I’m sorry I’m awkward, my fault for f***in up the tours,’’’ André raps. “I hated all the attention so I ran from it/f*** it if we did, but I hope we ain’t lose no fans from it.”
But the number of OutKast fans have only grown. And calls from rap fans and bloggers online for a reunion grow everyday. And that’s the Million Dollar Question. Will OutKast reunite? If the radio silence and personal/creative distance between André and Big Boi is any indication: not anytime soon. But the money calls nearly every notable act back to reunite eventually. Player and poet alike gotta eat, baby. And to quote Big Boi, “Greyhound don’t float on water.”