Thursday, October 19, 2006

OutKast: The At The Drive-In Of Rap?

this station is certainly non-operational

OutKast is the At The Drive-In of rap (hence the title of this entry, lolz). They are both acts in a genre (hiphop and emo) who spent three or four albums making themselves gradually no longer belong in it. Then they each released a near-masterpiece in 2000 (Stankonia, Relationship of Command) that brought their extreme polar sensibilities to the forefront and held them together (somehow) for an entire record. Each act features one completely bogus lyricist. Both bands flamed out after these records, and went on to receive unwarranted solo success with overblown and laughably pompous side projects on one end (The Love Below, The Mars Volta), and moderate success receding to the conventionally banal on the other (Sparta, Speakerboxxx). One thing history leaves out is that both bands sucked. Neither OutKast or ATDI ever came close to the great leap forward of their breakthroughs before success, and after it neither could reconcile their separate artistic ambitions when it came time to handle a worldwide audience.

OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillacmusik and ATLiens aren't awful albums, but they sure aren't relevant. The latter's few exceptions (the stanky "Ain't No Thang" and the superfly "Player's Ball") can be found on their premature and unwanted best-of, Big Boi & Dre Present....OutKast, which also features their best song, "The Whole World," which actually achieved Dre's goal of being too weird for hiphop and Big Boi's of a tight, hooky song structure to rein in Dre's lofty ambitions, in perfect harmony. Turning point Aquemini is a more solid record whose best moments (the psychedelic "SpottieOttieDopalicious," the down-home "Rosa Parks") can still be found on the best-of, save for the unexpected and wicked Raekwon showcase "Skew It On The Bar-B." But Goodie Mob's similarly down-home and psychedelic Still Standing, also released in 1998 from ATLiens coming into their own, is far more successful, not to mention consistent and effective. Then they made Stankonia, a hiphop record so great, even its skits are funny. It's so great it beat Eminem, PJ Harvey and Kid A in Pazz & Jop, and had three huge hits to boot (the awestruck "B.O.B.," the so-fresh "So Fresh, So Clean," and best of all, the now-classic "Ms. Jackson," a song about dumping Erykah Badu). Six years later, only Ghostface's Fishscale can do something like 24 tracks without flaming out. Stankonia ain't Fishscale, but it's damn close; I could live without "Snappin' & Trappin'" or the title track, but those are more akin to charming failures that go on b-sides rather than actual flaws. And it's even more of a miracle they had it in them, since Big Boi's a pretty modest rapper and Andre's a pretty terrible one.

At The Drive-In also has a premature and unwanted best-of, This Station Is Non-Operational, named after both a lyric from their most well-known song and a joke about band breakups. As you probably guessed from it, the band's sense of humor is pretty bad. And that's one reason why they shouldn't have covered The Smiths or Pink Floyd for it, the other being a Floyd cover is like a warning sign for the shit that follows. Unlike OutKast's, which makes an excellent case for second-guessing their pre-Stankonia catalog, ATDI's compilation is one of those fuck-you best-ofs designed by the band to make you check out the real albums. It's poorly organized, missing most of their best album (including two actual singles), and was either sequenced at random or their back catalog is just that crappy. Yeah it has plenty "for the fans" and all that garbage, but for a cult-fave, they would've been better off with a rarities comp. I barely remember Acrobatic Tenement, was unimpressed by Vaya, found a couple tracks on the more melodic In/Casino/Out arresting ("Napoleon Solo" and "Hulahoop Wounds") and see no reason to believe they had Relationship of Command in them. By the time they surprised the world in 2000, Command was just a brilliant meeting of minds that resulted in a great punk album. Grand Royal was a major label run by the Beastie Boys, meaning they had a big budget yet also big artistic allowances for their artists, which sometimes results in absolute greatness (The Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I made on Interscope's dime, Dave Matthews' ATO releasing Ben Kweller's Sha Sha). This was one of those times. Korn's producer Ross Robinson was just the guy to beat the intensity out of an unknown punk band from El Paso, and together they made an album that combined the exploding drive of a thousand shitty nu-metal bands that don't know how to use their power, with the soul and tunes of a great rock band tinged with a sense for the weird. Yes, Cedric Bixler-Zavala screamed about wishing wells and smokestacks and "manuscript replica" at the time, but no one had any reason to believe the band could turn out to be that pretentious when they called in Iggy Pop for a guest vocal. Then they broke up. Jim Ward brought the band's other two pop anchors with him to Sparta, who made Wiretap Scars, a shitty album with one great ATDI soundalike ("Air") and lots of bad ones. They bored me to death opening for Pearl Jam and I think they're up to their third record.

The Mars Volta are up to their fifth or sixth with this year's Amputechture, which I don't need to hear to know I'll hate. With Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala, there is true talent available in the band, and without three arena-rock dimwits with no songwriting skills to call them on their bullshit, they will never make another good record. 2003's De-Loused In The Comatorium is a concept album about God knows what, and reeks of unlistenable overkill except on, yep, the one that sounds the most like ATDI! "Interatic ESP" is fast, 4:52 (short by Volta standards) and has some truly awesome stop-start chuggery and a cool tango-y accordion outro. It's easily the record's best song. 2004's Frances The Mute had more sporadic good parts, but it was even more pretentious. The songs are all stuffed into five long-ass "suites," ensuring that the few good moments (mostly in the salsa-rific "L'Via L'Viaquez") can't be skipped to. Mute's "short" track (about 5:10) was an awful ballad called "The Widow" with an embarassing video (children eating strange black goo out of an ice cream truck? it must be a metaphor for the corruption of our police state) that landed it in Billboard's top 5. Suites and Latin song titles and bad prog-ballads flavored with salsa? A dealbreaker. I will not be listening to Amputechture. But God, am I craving Relationship of Command.

Unfortunately, OutKast is way too culturally relevant to dismiss for good. I'd really like to, though. Once Dre became (clears throat) Andre 3000, he turned into an unstoppable asshole. For one thing, the man hates rap. He also hates his partner. You can hear the indifference on 2006's "big reunion track" "Mighty 'O'," which would've been fun if either rapper lived up to its can't-fault-it-for-trying beat. Idlewild the album has a serious problem managing to be more pretentious than Idlewild the movie, a musical set in the 1920s by two rappers with meager acting abilities (who also aren't from the 1920s or make music in a 1920s style). Actually, the movie's not bad if you come in expecting a dogshit vanity project and come out feeling 2/3 fulfilled. The album is the year's most boring hiphop record though, and the rappers must've known something since they mostly used old songs in the flick. I count maybe three and a half good songs based on music alone. "Mighty 'O'," "Call The Law" and "PJ & Rooster" actually benefit from the concept, swung up with a nice urgency that lends them a vitality OutKast is really lacking these days. "Idlewild Blue (Don't Worry 'Bout Me)" is the half, because it's a respectable stab at harmonica blues-stomp from a guy I could go without ever hearing a respectable stab from again. It's too bad Andre 3000 discovered rap before he discovered nostalgia for genres he thinks are above it, we almost could've avoiding having to deal with him at all.

At least Big Boi makes do with what he's given, a drawl that's not unpleasant and a penchant for funky horn charts, a Funkadelic rhetoric not to be ashamed of that half-saved Speakerboxxx even though it flames out after "Ghettomusick," "Bowtie" and the never-will-be-"Hey Ya!" "The Way You Move." Andre couldn't swing anything in 2003 and The Love Below is a Prince-fetish indulgeathon that forgets Prince played instruments and coughs up only "Spread," "Happy Valentine's Day" and "Hey Ya!" for all its bloated reputation, all overly reliant on repetition, none featuring so much as a rap, and all designed to make white people who want to like black music, not to mention alt-rockers who want to like deep music, throw their wallets. Or it's not a calculation and Andre's an idiot who himself thinks it's deep. Either way, it sucked and abused the funky privileges of Stankonia's expansive playfulness. Every time I think about it I want to dismiss OutKast for good, but Dre's becoming such a can't-not-watch lunatic I expect to see Flavor of Dre on Vh1's prime-time lineup by 2010. I mean, he has an animated show coming out on Cartoon Network with all original music and voiceovers. Who's paying him for this shit? Didn't Idlewild make like 4 million in its opening week? Wasn't "Hey Ya!" all the way back in 2003? And yet I can't look away.


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