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OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

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At this point in their career, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to call OutKast's Andre 3000 and Big Boi the Lennon and McCartney of hip-hop. Like The Beatles' icons, the two markedly different artists complement each other perfectly, and OutKast has similarly evolved in quantum leaps, becoming commercially successful without sacrificing artiness, eccentricity, or its urge to constantly reinvent itself. If Stankonia was the duo's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is its White Album, a wildly ambitious attempt to reconcile its members' solo impulses with OutKast's identity as a group. The album's audacity only begins with its structure. Its two discs are essentially solo projects that occasionally overlap, and what's lost is considerable: namely, the justly vaunted lyrical chemistry between Andre 3000 and Big Boi. But what's gained is even more remarkable: the powerful, singular, undiluted visions of two of rap's most fearless sonic explorers. Big Boi has long been perceived as the straight man to Andre 3000's space cadet, but Speakerboxxx illustrates how reductive that categorization is. The former is plenty freaky in his own right, with an elastic flow that scatters words and vivid imagery like cluster bombs. His Speakerboxxx hits its high early, with the beautifully sad "Unhappy," which matches the poignancy of its bittersweet hook–"Might as well have fun / 'Cause your happiness is done, and your goose is cooked"–to the cliché-deflating sneakiness of a refrain that asks listeners to "flip that smile upside-down now." Big Boi engages in his trademark Southernplayalistics on the irresistible "Bowtie" and "The Way You Move," but his half of the project possesses a depth that lets it hold up alongside Andre 3000's ridiculously accomplished contribution. Speakerboxxx is great, but it has to be, to avoid being blown away by The Love Below. Andre 3000, whose unusually musical flow has always bordered on singing, largely forgoes rap in favor of a mind-boggling array of styles, ranging from pre-rock crooning to acoustic jazz-soul (alongside Norah Jones) to lovesexy funk. The result is the kind of album where an unlisted, instrumental drum 'n' bass/jazz cover of "My Favorite Things" qualifies as business as usual. (Even the skits are ambitious, reflecting a literary sensibility that doesn't make them any less skippable.) In its boundless ambition, The Love Below recalls Cody ChesnuTT's similarly kaleidoscopic The Headphone Masterpiece, but where that record strained to realize its vision, Andre 3000's headphone masterpiece effortlessly achieves its goals. The Love Below is the album The Headphone Masterpiece grew up to be, and the perfect complement to Speakerboxxx. Together, the two discs soar above even the lofty expectations created by their predecessors.