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Outkast - Topic

Aquemini Play

Even compared to their already excellent and forward-looking catalog, OutKast's sprawling third album, Aquemini, was a stroke of brilliance. The chilled-out space-funk of ATLiens had already thrown some fans for a loop, and Aquemini made it clear that its predecessor was no detour, but a stepping stone for even greater ambitions. Some of ATLiens' ethereal futurism is still present, but more often Aquemini plants its feet on the ground for a surprisingly down-home flavor. The music draws from a vastly eclectic palette of sources, and the live instrumentation is fuller-sounding than ATLiens. Most importantly, producers Organized Noize imbue their tracks with a Southern earthiness and simultaneous spirituality that come across regardless of what Dre and Big Boi are rapping about. Not that they shy away from rougher subject matter, but their perspective is grounded and responsible, intentionally avoiding hardcore clichés. Their distinctive vocal deliveries are now fully mature, with a recognizably Southern rhythmic bounce but loads more technique than their territorial peers. Those flows grace some of the richest and most inventive hip-hop tracks of the decade. The airy lead single "Rosa Parks" juxtaposes front-porch acoustic guitar with DJ scratches and a stomping harmonica break that could have come from nowhere but the South. Unexpected touches like that are all over the record: the live orchestra on "Return of the 'G'"; the electronic, George Clinton-guested "Synthesizer"; the reggae horns and dub-style echo of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"; the hard-rocking wah-wah guitar of "Chonkyfire"; and on and on. What's most impressive is the way everything comes together to justify the full-CD running time, something few hip-hop epics of this scope ever accomplish. After a few listens, not even the meditative jams on the second half of the album feel all that excessive. Aquemini fulfills all its ambitions, covering more than enough territory to qualify it as a virtuosic masterpiece, and a landmark hip-hop album of the late '90s. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below Play

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, Rovi

ATLiens Play

Though they were likely lost on casual hip-hop fans, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was full of subtle indications that OutKast were a lot more inventive than your average Southern playas. Their idiosyncrasies bubbled to the surface on their sophomore effort, ATLiens, an album of spacy sci-fi funk performed on live instruments. Largely abandoning the hard-partying playa characters of their debut, Dre and Big Boi develop a startlingly fresh, original sound to go along with their futuristic new personas. George Clinton's space obsessions might seem to make P-Funk obvious musical source material, but ATLiens ignores the hard funk in favor of a smooth, laid-back vibe that perfectly suits the duo's sense of melody. The album's chief musical foundation is still soul, especially the early-'70s variety, but other influences begin to pop up as well. Some tracks have a spiritual, almost gospel feel (though only in tone, not lyrical content), and the Organized Noize production team frequently employs the spacious mixes and echo effects of dub reggae in creating the album's alien soundscapes. In addition to the striking musical leap forward, Dre and Big Boi continue to grow as rappers; their flows are getting more tongue-twistingly complex, and their lyrics more free-associative. Despite a couple of overly sleepy moments during the second half, ATLiens is overall a smashing success thanks to its highly distinctive style, and stands as probably OutKast's most focused work (though it isn't as wildly varied as subsequent efforts). The album may have alienated (pun recognized, but not intended) the more conservative wing of the group's fans, but it broke new ground for Southern hip-hop and marked OutKast as one of the most creatively restless and ambitious hip-hop groups of the '90s. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik Play

It is on OutKast's debut album that the fledgling production team Organized Noize began forging one of the most distinctive production sounds in popular music in the '90s: part hip-hop; part live, Southern-fried guitar licks and booty-thick bass runs; and part lazy, early-'70s soul. The album was not only artistically successful but also thrived commercially, leaping into the Top 20 album chart on the back of the outstanding hit single "Player's Ball" and eventually going platinum. Although a little bit too dependent on overly simplistic and programmed snare beats, the music is unconditionally excellent, with languid, mellow melodies sliding atop rapid, mechanical drums. Organized Noize already had their distinguishing sound figured out, down to the last twanged, wah-wahed note. But what makes Southernplayalisticadillacmuzick such a wonderful album has even more to do with the presence of its rappers, Dre and Big Boi. No one sounded like OutKast in 1994 -- a mixture of lyrical acuity, goofball humor, Southern drawl, funky timing, and legitimate offbeat personalities. Few rappers of the '90s have displayed such an inventive sense of rhyme flow either, and few rap artists in general have ears as attuned to creating such catchy melodic and vocal hooks. Almost every song has some sort of tuneful chant or repetitive hook that marks it as instantly memorable. There are occasional dull and mediocre spots, such as "Call of Da Wild" and the overlong "Funky Ride," that can't even be elevated by a head-nodding bassline or a tricky rhyme. Such low points, however, are far outshined by the brilliant moments. Already an extremely strong showing, OutKast would continue to develop into one of the finest, most consistently challenging (not to mention booty-shaking) rap groups of the decade. ~ Stanton Swihart, Rovi

Stankonia Play

Stankonia was OutKast's second straight masterstroke, an album just as ambitious, just as all-over-the-map, and even hookier than its predecessor. With producers Organized Noize playing a diminished role, Stankonia reclaims the duo's futuristic bent. Earthtone III (Andre, Big Boi, Mr. DJ) helms most of the backing tracks, and while the live-performance approach is still present, there's more reliance on programmed percussion, otherworldly synthesizers, and surreal sound effects. Yet the results are surprisingly warm and soulful, a trippy sort of techno-psychedelic funk. Every repeat listen seems to uncover some new element in the mix, but most of the songs have such memorable hooks that it's easy to stay diverted. The immediate dividends include two of 2000's best singles: "B.O.B." is the fastest of several tracks built on jittery drum'n'bass rhythms, but Andre and Big Boi keep up with awe-inspiring effortlessness. "Ms. Jackson," meanwhile, is an anguished plea directed at the mother of the mother of an out-of-wedlock child, tinged with regret, bitterness, and affection. Its sensitivity and social awareness are echoed in varying proportions elsewhere, from the Public Enemy-style rant "Gasoline Dreams" to the heartbreaking suicide tale "Toilet Tisha." But the group also returns to its roots for some of the most testosterone-drenched material since their debut. Then again, OutKast doesn't take its posturing too seriously, which is why they can portray women holding their own, or make bizarre boasts about being "So Fresh, So Clean." Given the variety of moods, it helps that the album is broken up by brief, usually humorous interludes, which serve as a sort of reset button. It takes a few listens to pull everything together, but given the immense scope, it's striking how few weak tracks there are. It's no wonder Stankonia consolidated OutKast's status as critics' darlings, and began attracting broad new audiences: its across-the-board appeal and ambition overshadowed nearly every other pop album released in 2000. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi

Idlewild Play

A lot happened to OutKast between the moment they began to think about making a movie and the release of Idlewild. In 1998, no studio would back the movie they were plotting. Fast-forward eight years, past a fourth successive classic album, a double-disc blockbuster, and countless breakup rumors, as well as moonlighting gigs involving supporting actor roles and a successful dog kennel. Along the way, OutKast's first movie took on an entirely different shape, from Aquemini to Idlewild, and the duo attained enough star power to gain the support of HBO and Universal. After a series of delays with its soundtrack, Idlewild reached theaters in August 2006. Set in the prohibition era, Big Boi plays a speakeasy owner, while Dré is the relatively introverted piano-playing son of a mortician. These roles are no stretch, and they cross paths in only a handful of scenes; this all befits the together-but-separate presentation the duo has maintained for a few years. That presentation holds true throughout Idlewild's soundtrack, which doubles as the sixth OutKast album. Big Boi and André 1936 share little space on a disc that's not so much a series of misfires as it's filled with shots that reach their targets, albeit softly and with little trace of impact. Rich with color and energy, mischievous asides, and biting observations, the album presents fresh ideas every couple of minutes. However, at the same time, it just keeps on going, and even its highlights fall short of OutKast's past and fail to transcend its assortment of inspirations. Little of it sticks. The music of the '30s seeps through a handful of tracks, the best of which is led by Big Boi protégé Janelle Monaé, a young vocalist who stomps and sways through her time in the spotlight. Despite Dré's likely position as the driving creative force behind the whole project -- and its further strides away from what his detractors think he should be doing -- he's far more effective as an MC than a singer. When it comes to rapping, he's "bored" with "no dragon to battle," yet the verse containing that proclamation outstrips just about all the lines he croons. "Hollywood Divorce" is an exception, where he does triple duty (producer, MC, vocalist) and guides Big Boi, Lil Wayne, and Snoop Dogg through a modern-day version of "Burn Hollywood Burn." Big Boi is the album's saving grace, still every bit the undervalued force with scythe-like rhymes and gazelle-like moves. Idlewild is certainly a spectacle, and an occasionally entertaining and enlightening one at that, but it translates into an elaborate diversion when compared to what this duo has done in the past. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Greatest Hits [Japan Bonus Track] Play

Greatest Hits is essentially Big Boi and Dre Present...OutKast with one additional track, a remix of "Ms. Jackson" tacked on at the end. Fanatic fans and serious collectors might find it worth it to find this Japanese import for that one track, but truthfully, while the remix is interesting, it's actually a little disorienting, lacking the backwards scratching that so defined the wonderful original mix. ~ Steve Leggett, Rovi

Big Boi and Dre Present...Outkast Play

OutKast's first hits compilation comes at the perfect time; after gaining millions of new fans (more of a whole different demographic) with the crossover hit Stankonia, Dré and Big Boi delivered a tight summation of their decade-long career for listeners whose familiarity grows hazy before the duo hit with "Ms. Jackson" and "B.O.B." OutKast has been doing great work since their fully formed debut with 1993's "Player's Ball," and their singles hold up well. Those looking for positivity and emotion on the level of "Ms. Jackson" will find it (wrapped in great productions) on "Rosa Parks" and "Git up, Git Out." The down-tempo "Elevators (Me & You)" is an OutKast history-in-miniature, while two excellent tracks from their debut -- "Ain't No Thang" and "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" -- introduced the group's formula of syrupy G-funk and intricate, slang-heavy rapping. Also included are three new tracks: the brass-heavy "Funkin' Around," a P-Funk pastiche named "The Whole World," and the jazz-club jam "Movin' Cool (The After Party)." ~ John Bush, Rovi
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