Idlewild Album Review
Almost every review of Outkast’s Idlewild has been the same, as reviews often are. They start by gushing over how ambitious and unconventional the album is, but by the end the critic comes away wishing it was more like the group’s earlier work. Since sports are the only way I can understand anything anymore, I think I have a way to explain the trajectory of Outkast’s career and people’s reception of them.
Ever since Aquemini or so, Outkast have been the perfect group for white critics to write about because they work within and without the traditional hip-hop aesthetic, which is why so many of my friends in high school could hate rap, except for, you know, that song about moving to the back of the bus. Or why my grandma knows how to “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” They were able to move beyond the hip-hop culture both by being firmly entrenched in it, through Big Boi’s jerseys and gold teeth, and transcending it, through Andre 3000 looking and acting like this:
Is that a Ghostbusters Powerpack?
Everyone knows this superficially.
Where it gets complicated is when you take into account each man’s musical styles. Big Boi’s voice is buoyant and propulsive, spitting anapests flawlessly. On some lines he sounds like a metronome. He might be more concrete in his approach—all he wants to do is “kick back with his gators on and watch his little girl blow bubbles”—but he’s superior to Dre technically.
Andre, on the other hand, enjambs and carries over lines until you can’t even count bars anymore because there’s no difference between internal and end rhyme. (Also, I was an English major. Deal with it.) He’s smarter and more introspective than his counterpart, but that brings with it an unpredictability that can be unsettling.
Mostly because of the ways they dress and act, Big Boi is seen as the “blacker” of the two, but it actually may be the opposite in execution. In football terms, Andre is Michael Vick: he makes some incredible plays but is wildly inconsistent. For every “Hey Ya” (or “PJ and Rooster” on Idlewild), there are at least five of “Dracula’s Wedding,” just as for every overtime run against Minnesota there are at least five games with these numbers: 10-22, 153 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs.
Conversely, Big Boi is more of a Trent Green. Neither is the first one you think of when listing the top performers at their positions, but they succeed by knowing their strengths and weaknesses and working within their systems. Trent Green is content to dink-and-dunk and depends on his technique and poise to win games, and Big Boi will come in and murder eight bars on something like “Girlfight.”
On this level, even though Andre performs what amount to ragtime showtunes*, we can associate him with the most generally black quarterback in the league. And even though Big Boi breeds friggin’ pitbulls, he is representative of the five-step drop whitebread quarterback. And if all of this sounds racist, it’s because it is.
It’s racist because, despite my semantics, a quarterback can be a raw, athletic scrambler while still being white, and a rapper can play instruments and sing while still being black. All of this is relative and only in place because of old school attitudes. If that’s true though, why will the Idlewild movie fail at the box office? Why are people already selling CDs back to stores? Why will the album debut beneath Danity Kane, despite Arista buying about 20,000 copies for themselves? Because Outkast isn’t good at this anymore. They can’t co-exist, and everyone knows that superficially.
Any balance—white with black, hip-hop with non-hip-hop, conventional with unique--that had ensured previous success for the duo is gone. They’ve basically been flying solo since Stankonia and only share this album for a few moments. Maybe they shouldn’t have even shared those.
Dre only raps about fifty bars on the whole CD, some on “Mighty O” and some on “Hollywood Divorce,” and he sounds rusty on those, firmly punctuating lines he used to run through seamlessly. Instead of people complaining about this lack of flow, maybe they should be complaining that he tries to rap when his heart obviously isn’t in it. On the more jazzy tracks, he suffers from a lack of detail in the songwriting and a lack of range in delivery. His experimentation is admirable but never suits him: “A Bad Note” has—no joke—more in common with an Explosions in the Sky song than an Outkast one.
While 3000 is trying too hard, Big Boi rarely contributes anything cohesive. For example, on single “Morris Brown,” refrains and choruses wrap around his parts so unrelentingly that he never spits more than six to eight lines at a time and never gains enough momentum to wow the listener. (It doesn’t help that the song is getting “Tusk” comparisons because of its marching band beat. “Tusk” is the most coked-out record ever, and if there’s one thing Kast doesn’t need it’s more excess.)
Idlewild has its moments—reports of its complete shittiness have been exaggerated—but Outkast will never be the same. And unlike those critics I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t want them to sound like the group they used to be: I want them to break up if they don’t sound like a group.
* (Wouldn’t it have been great if that Hughes Brothers Hendrix biopic had happened? Andre could have gotten acting and guitar noodling out of his system at once. The reason the project fell through, as you may know, is that the Hendrix estate denied use of Jimi’s music; but if you ask me, a Hendrix flick with no Hendrix music would have been hilarious. Every scene would be like, “Jimi plugs in his guitar at Woodstock. Cut to Jimi walking off the stage.” That's why I'm not a studio executive I guess.)