By: Chris NorrisOne fine summer afternoon, a svelte rap star comes strolling into awest hollywood restaurant. Convention dictates a brief descriptionof his outfit here, usually pasted in by standard Rap-Write(tm)software: platinum chain, home-team ball cap, baggies from ownclothing line, tattoo of son/daughter/dead homie. But this rap staris Andre 3000 of Atlanta’s trailblazing hip-hop duo OutKast,one of the most fashion-forward men in music, if not the UnitedStates. Blond wigs, football shoulder pads, and velvet knickershave all played a part in Andre’s lonely quest for the NextLevel, thus his look today merits special attention. There it is:striped polo shirt, blue slacks, tan Banana Republic sports jacket,and tasseled loafers. Repeat: Tasseled. Freaking. Loafers. To quotesome old Ice-T, Man, have you went crazy?
"People think I'm this wild-ass dude," says Andre, who, to be fair, is not quite rocking it Casual Friday (giant Afro and baboon-head medallion being off most corporate dress codes). "They know me as this dude who wore wigs and fur pants and did shows with just his underwear on and shit. And it's almost like people come to expect that." He tugs thoughtfully at his 'fro. "So, what happens when they expect you to do the unexpected?" Darting left when rap goes right, waxing buggy when hip-hop goes thuggy, Andre (ne Andre Benjamin) and partner Big Boi (ne Antwon Patton) have embraced the perilous role of hip-hop innovators for four albums, living up to their name while staying adamantly ghettocentric. And this kind of pimpin' definitely ain't easy.
It's been three years since OutKast's 2000 masterpiece, Stankonia, bearer of outside-the-box hits like "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" and "Ms. Jackson." Finally, they're returning with a bunker buster of a double album, titled SpeakerBoxxx/The Love Below, which splits the group's winning duality--Andre's "poet" yin and Big Boi's "pimp" yang--into two discs. SpeakerBoxxx belongs to the gravel-voiced Big Boi, who helms the booming ode to the powers of "ghetto musick" with guests including Jay-Z and Ludacris. "Speakerboxxx refers to the subwoofers in your truck," Big Boi says. "But it can also mean your voice. I wanted it to be funky, but be talkin' 'bout something."
The Love Below, belongs to Andre 3000, star-child heir to Sly Stone and Prince, with one foot in the 'hood and the other in the astral plane. It's a remarkable rap record in that there's almost no rapping on it, a couple of hard-swinging jazz numbers, lots of new-wave robo funk, plenty of singing, and tons of guitar-playing--all existing as the conceptual accompaniment to a feature-length film of Andre's design.
The double CD is typical of OutKast, threatening to burst into a million pieces from the diverse styles and concepts it struggles to contain. While the two leaders have been signing new talent to their Aquemini label, brainstorming screenplays, and raising pit bulls, it's obvious that they've also been hard at work on music--cheerfully managing an unmanageable array of personal impulses and industry demands. "Every time they come out, it's something that you haven't heard," says Stephen Hill, vice president for music programming and talent at BET. "I think they're the most advanced group--not just in hip-hop, but in music--in pushing the barriers. There's nobody else in black music today that's getting away with that."
Straying from OutKast's Willy Wonka--like stronghold Stankonia--their Atlanta studio/clubhouse--Andre is in L.A. to take film meetings and finish his record. Rolling down Sunset Boulevard in a BMW, Andre and his Mohawked friend, director Bryan Barber, try to catch me up on recent OutKast maneuvers.
"At first, it was gonna be about a guy with all these different girls," he begins, describing their film-in-progress.
"Nah, wait," says Barber. "Originally, we were gonna have like a gangsta story and a love story."
"No!" Andre says, remembering. "At first, we were gonna do shorts. And then HBO got wind of the treatment and wanted us to stretch it out. So now it's this whole action theme, mixed with a love story, mixed with Purple Rain, mixed with Amelie."
Like his influences (he's seen Amelie five times), Andre's cinematic ambitions veer pretty far from the stock rapper roles of dealer, Oz inmate, and rapper. He played a screenwriter in Hollywood Homicide and was slated to costar as a piano prodigy who goes on the lam with a punk-rocker (Shannyn Sossamon) in mid-'70s Memphis. (The film is "idle," per Andre.) In the video for The Love Below's "She Lives in My Lap," Andre will play a mortician who falls for a gorgeous corpse, played by Rosario Dawson, who provides the girl's voice in the ghostly love song ("I just wanted to kiss her," he says of her recording session).
Suspiciously, Andre's only other guest artist is another latte-complected hottie, one Norah Jones. "This was way before she blew up. Now, we couldn't afford her," says Andre. As Jones recalls, "I figured, 'What the hell? It sounds like fun.' And it was!"
Andre also considered a cameo from A Tribe Called Quest, who he calls the greatest hip-hop group ever. Otherwise, he says, "I'm not really a fan of hip-hop like I used to be." His current holy trinity is composed of two avant-techno beat freaks, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, and, of course, Prince. "Those are the three people who humble me," he says. Other faves include the Hives and the White Stripes. "I read [where] Jack White was asked what he thought of hip-hop and he was like, 'I think it's pretty much crap.' But then he said, 'OutKast and Wu-Tang are pretty interesting.' So I was like, 'Well, all right, Jack White!' I'm cool with you.'"
In fact, The Love Below is hip-hop only in the most expansive sense. The songs, like the bizarrely rocking British Invasion-style single "Hey Ya," tend toward true hybrids--not schematic mash-ups of "rap" and "rock," but sui generis jams carried by Andre's quirky, George Clintonian vocals. Even the "jazz" numbers are wacky and salacious, prompting comparisons to Prince's notorious "Black Album." One chorus turns on the rather indelicate entreaty "Spread / Spread for me."
It seems, in other words, that you can take the Stankonian out of the stank, but you can't take the stank out of the Stankonian. As it happens, this fact is also being illustrated2,000 miles east of L.A., in Atlanta's pimp-juice bastion: the Northeast Plaza Fun Bowl. "Yeee-ah," yells Big Boi over the sounds of smashing pins and Shania Twain. "Y'all throwin' strikes up in this motherfucker!" Here on Buford Highway, Andre's compact, head-shaved partner is ready to start ballin' for real.
"I got so many balls it's ridiculous," says Big Boi, kneeling to get one ready. Tonight, his team, the Kingpins, is facing Rocketsauce, a quintet of white, alterna-kids in skater tees. His teammate and little brother James, thugged-out in braids and Falcons jersey, steps to the lane. "Treat every piiin like it's yo kiiin, baby," Big Boi calls to him. "That's how you wiiin!"
Though invited to join a league with other Atlanta celebs, Big Boi gravitated to this low-key scene because, as he says, "When I bowl, I like to bowl." Right now, his presence at this suburban hangout suggests a crunk version of Puffy in the Hamptons, as he holds forth with a Black & Mild cigar, a two-carat diamond stud in each ear, and silver fronts covering his lower teeth. "I'm very competitive," Big Boi confides. "Always been that way."
This is not, he insists, reason to read a coming breakup into the splitting of the OutKast album, even though his partner is half a continent away. Though they originally intended solo projects, Andre and Big Boi decided to combine the records when their release dates fell close to each other. "It's like two cooks in one kitchen, and if you got two kitchens, why not use 'em?" says Big Boi. Their movie-in-the-works is a collaborative effort, and Big Boi's first single, "Ghetto Musick," is produced by Andre. It's a techno-rap track with a frantic beat, spitting synths, and female singers tightly harmonizing ? la M's 1979 electro hit "Pop Muzik"--a typically OutKast-dense riff on the ironies of a culture that thrives on the same energies that destroy it.
Other SpeakerBoxxx songs tackle the complexities of being smart and gifted in the late-hip-hop era. One, "Tic-Tic-Boom," even discusses mounting international tensions, a pointed issue for authors of a hit whose metaphor has been taken a bit too literally in recent months. "I heard they was actually fighting to that song," Big Boi says of "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)." "That's cold-blooded, man. I mean, I'm glad the crunk got their morale up, but..." he shakes his head.
Such are the burdens of blowing up in public, which OutKast continues to do in untested ways. With umbrella terms like ghetto musick and fictive homelands like Stankonia, the duo increasingly seem to be looking beyond and beneath hip-hop for continuity in their art and lives. This is a shrewd move for any rapper nowadays who wants creative longevity, something these OutKasts feel entitled to--whether they're singing, screenwriting, or trying to pick up a spare.
"Let me get up in there," says Big Boi, scooping up his ball and striding onto the lanes. He sends it toward the pins and spins away in a crouch before contact, confident in the outcome. It's a strike, and the Kingpins are in the lead.
"Oh yeah, playa," James calls out to Big Boi, who smirks back.
"I told y'all," he bellows, chuckling. "This maaah house!"