Release Date: December 11, 2012
Label: Purple Ribbon/Def Jam
To listen to Big Boi talk about music, you’d think he was auditioning for a midday DJ slot on Sirius XM’s adult-alternative hodgepodge the Loft. He’s been crowing about his deep and abiding love for Kate Bush for well over a decade now. When I met up with him in 2010 to chat about his last solo album, Sir Lucious Leftfoot: Son of Chico Dusty, he mentioned that one of his favorite songs of all time was Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” Last year came rumors he was working with Modest Mouse. And a few months ago, when I went to Stankonia Studios to hear an in-progress version of Lucious Leftfoot‘s follow-up, he raved about Mumford & Sons, Phoenix, and the Avett Brothers.
For a while, such loudly consistent declarations of his diverse tastes seemed like a pre-emptive counterpunch aimed at anyone who saw André 3000 as OutKast’s resident eclectic weirdo/creative genius, leaving Big Boi as the amiable street dude in the oversize Braves jersey who just happened to be a damn fine rapper. This was always an unfairly reductionist view of the duo, but to a significant extent, it was a view that persisted. And it probably hurt a bit, though Big Boi himself might not admit it. No one wants to be the John Oates of the Dirty South.
He’s long since erased that notion in the minds of anyone paying attention: Speakerboxxx, his half of OutKast’s 2003 double-disc opus, was song-for-song a better album than Dre’s The Love Below (though, yes, that one’s weirder), and Sir Lucious Leftfoot was, if not a game-changer, at least a gamer. But Antwan Patton is clearly still feeling a little defensive, which makes Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors either proof that the years of professing his love for alt-rock, indie-folk, and whatever else aging hipsters listen to was more than just talk, or a testament to how far he’s willing to go to convince the world that he deserves as much credit as André for the wailing electric guitars in “B.O.B.”
Or both. Right from the album’s intro — a gauzy, acoustic-guitar-laced, P.M. Dawn-ish fog called “Ascending” — Big Boi sets the tone: “If y’all don’t know me by now, y’all ain’t gonna never know me,” delivered in the calm but aggrieved voice a frustrated father might take with a lazy, careless child. From there, he jumps into “The Thickets,” a warm, appealing funk-soul jam featuring his old pal Sleepy Brown on the hook. That one feels like it was intended for the album he’d originally promised would be his next: Daddy Fat Sax: Funk-Soul Crusader, a self-explanatory project shelved when the songs that wound up here took a different shape.
That Big Boi has referred to Sarah Barthel of the upstate New York indie-pop duo Phantogram as his “new Sleepy Brown” probably gives you an idea about that shape. Her ethereal voice — which sounds, not at all coincidentally, a hell of a lot like Kate Bush’s — graces three tracks here, buoyed by musical contributions from her bandmate, Josh Carter. “Objectum Sexuality” is a wonderfully weird mélange of Big’s sharp and playful rhymes, Carter’s jagged synths, and Barthel’s icy electro-pop cool; “CPU” taps that same formula with less imaginative results, but “Lines,” which sports an airy, intoxicating chorus, a punchy A$AP Rocky verse, and a breathless 4-a.m.-at-the-club vibe, is more successful.
Vicious Lies is front-loaded, though, with tracks that feel more like old-school Big Boi: “In the A,” a perfunctory collaboration with fellow ATL vets (and one-time enemies) T.I. and Ludacris, could have been added at the 11th hour out of fear that Big might be running too far and too fast for his fans to keep up. But he seems to gain confidence in his vision as he goes. “She Hates Me” is a moody shuffle that dares to tackle the least fashionable of hip-hop subjects — an actual, grown-up relationship — and does so with genuine emotion (“The shoe still fits but I’m wearing out the soles / Sometimes I really feel as if I’m running out my soul”) and a noted lack of posturing. And “Shoes for Running,” an honest-to-god collaboration with Wavves, wraps Big’s rapid-fire rhymes about his spiritual (if not financial) connection to the nation’s less-fortunate 99 percent around a buzzing, guitar-fueled indie-rock chorus.
Add to all this the pulsing, bluesy “Raspberries” (which feels at least tangentially inspired by the PBR&B movement), the I-Swear-It’s-Not-Usher lighter-waver “Tremendous Damage,” and one glorious mid-’80s Prince rip-off (“Mama Told Me”), and it’s obvious there’s a sort of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic at play here. Not all of it works, but even when it doesn’t, Vicious Lies is never dull. It’s not clear where Big Boi goes from here, but the fact that an album with Robin Pecknold or Japandroids seems at least as likely as another one with André 3000 is probably the most bizarre future anyone could’ve imagined.