Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Not The Ultimate Answer To Rap I Had Hoped For: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below Ages Poorly.

The Good: Decent instrumentals, Politically aware and active lyrics, Melodies, Many catchy songs
The Bad: Dependence on guest vocals, Moments and use of language
The Basics: A decent rap album, Speakerboxx/The Love Below is plagued by many of the problems in rap today while still managing to push the boundaries and sound different enough to be impressive.

In the "credit where credit is due" column, OutKast out performs most other rap artists by a decent margin. The two members of the group, Andre 3000 and Big Boi, have a knack for making the old sounds new and for infusing the dead, limp and uninspired rap genre with some real music, insight and tunes. I purchased Speakerboxxx/The Love Below when the single "Roses" started playing on the airwaves because the album finally met my predetermined criteria of having three singles I truly loved in order to buy it. The other half of my desire to purchase this dual album was that I found I had no rap in my collection and I find some of it quite enjoyable (and the rest of it dismally bad).

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a two-disc set featuring 39 tracks that range from skits to fairly direct rap to rhythm and blues. I chose Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to represent the rap genre in my collection because when I listened to songs by Outkast, I found myself humming along, looking forward to hearing them again and because they were relatively non-threatening. More than any other musical genre, rap has a tendency to treat women and sex as objects and emotionless activities, swear without any impact and say little while blasting out sound. Outkast, in my experience, tended to buck that trend and after listening to the dual c.d., I am pleased to say that does seem to be the case for their full albums.

The problem with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was my preconception going into it. I think I hoped for a rap album that was in contrast to all of the problems of rap as a genre and in that way, I was disappointed. I wanted a rap album that flew in the face of using profanity for shock value and showed respect for all people. More than any other rap album I have heard, this is lived up to, but it still throws around "muthafucka" and "bitch." The thing is, the language loses all impact. I am actually somewhat comfortable with the context of the word "hoe" in the hit single "The Way You Move" because it is not emphasized, not representative of the OutKast view of women and seems to not be used in a derogatory way, if that is at all possible.

The other reason I considered getting rid of this album once I purchased it was that it has some real musical inconsistencies. From simple tracks that simply say Speakerboxxx to music to simple skits and letters being read on The Love Below album, there are some real departures from music that get old after a few listens. Moreover, I was disappointed by Outkast's falling in with the current trend against individual artists. Especially in rap and r&b, there is an obsession with having guest artists appear on an album and on this dual album, almost every track has a guest vocalist, ranging from Norah Jones (on "Take Off Your Coat") to Jay-Z (on "Flip Flop Rock"). The problem with such guest vocals on this particular work is that they detract from the OutKast sound and flavor. So, for example, on "Flip Flop Rock," Jay-Z does his usual self promotion with lines like "Young Hov in the place to be" and he turns the song from an OutKast song into something that sounds like Jay-Z with lines like "I'm on a whole 'nother plane, a whole different lane / A whole 'nother game that I'm playin', understand what I'm sayin'?" My point here is that when you shell out good money for an album by an artist that you like, it's annoying to hear so much from artists you don't like. Add to that, I find it ridiculous how obsessed many rap artists are with self-promotion within their own music. Don't believe me? Actually listen to, say, any of the singles played on the radio by Eminem; each and every one of them is about Eminem. He's singing about himself; people who buy his albums are buying commercials for the product Eminem!

So, why do I keep Speakerboxxx/The Love Below? Because ultimately, Outkast has a unique ability in rap (much more common in techno) to take the old and make it new. Outkast uses all sorts of instruments and sounds to push the boundaries of what is considered rap. "Bowtie" has trumpets, "Roses" uses keyboards with a piano sound (rare in rap), "Pink and Blue" uses violas and cellos! Thus, the dual album does not sound like all of the heavy bass, simple drums and toneless, inane riffs that plague much of rap and pop music at this time.

Just the opposite, OutKast reinvents music with a purpose here with rhythmic tunes and smooth melodies to complement the raps. It's easy to see why "The Way You Move" would be a hit song; it sounds good, it has a tune and it sounds pleasantly different from everything else that's on the radio right now. Even the gospel-sounding "Church" manages to have a distinctive genre sound (in this case, gospel), yet incorporate rap flawlessly into it and make it all sound not preachy (I'm not a fan of christian rock or gospel).

One of the surprises I found was that I have come back to the Big Boi album more than the The Love Below disc. This surprised me because: 1. I loved the two Andre 3000 tracks from the radio against only one from Big Boi, 2. Big Boi's album is a bit more direct rap and I tend to be someone who likes more pop, and 3. Speakerboxxx has more guest artists I do not like on it. The reason I listen to Speakerboxxx more is that it has greater diversity musically than "The Love Below." Sure, "Hey Ya'" is still the most impressive track, but Andre's creativity seems somewhat limited musically, such that by the time the listener gets to "Love In War" and "She's Alive," it seems like he's played all of his cards. Conversely, Big Boi's Speakerboxxx keeps the pace and interest going fairly consistently.

The final reason I keep this album is probably because it has an educational value in its language. Listening to this dual album, it is very easy to argue against the monolithic arguments many people come up with about rap. These albums have social commentary, like in "War," Big Boi sings "I'll rap about the presidential election and the scandal that followed / And we all watched the nation as it swallowed and chalked it up / Basically, America, you got fucked." And Andre 3000 sings about ". . . Mother Earth is dying and we continue to fuck her to death" on "Vibrate." These are intelligent, socially conscious lyricists who are about a lot more than themselves and their music. They want to affect the world in a positive way and it works. Moreover, listening to this album, it's quite clear there is a huge difference between the word nigga' (slang for close friend, etc.) and the Dreaded N-Word (which is an unredeemably bad insult).

Like rap? You've probably bought this already. Not a big fan of rap? This dual c.d. is a chance to expand your horizons, if you're open to it. It has some truly great tracks that rock and rap and ultimately it is an easy album to find something enjoyable in. The best tracks are "Hey Ya'" and "The Way You Move" (though "Ghetto Musick" and "Bowtie" grow on me daily) and the weakest tracks on each disc are "She's Alive" and the "Tomb Of The Boom."

For other rap, soul or funk album reviews, please visit my reviews of:
It Ain't Easy: Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett
River Deep, Mountain High: The Very Best Of Ike & Tina Turner - Ike And Tina Turner
Crazy (single) - Seal


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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