Apparently, you just can’t hold Big Boi down. The Son of Chico Dusty has been a thing since 2007. Hell, word of both he and Andre’s solo albums has been persistent prior to freakin’ Idlewild. Who knows when it was originally supposed to come out, but it certainly didn’t. Now we’re in 2010. Delays of that length are often dooming even in hip hop, think Before I Self Destruct, or even Lazers. Is that latter album even a real thing? At this point, who knows. Big Boi’s solo “debut” (we all know Speakerboxxx is only an OutKast album in name) had begun to fade into a similar mythos, and then suddenly Antwan was leaving his home at LaFace/Jive, and the album seemed alive again, only at Def Jam.
In case there’s any doubt in your mind: Jive Records are the bad guys. After the stacks of money OutKast no doubt provided the label with, they got cold feet with Big Boi on his own. Even with the single “Ringtone” getting serious airtime. This sort of thing apparently comes naturally to the label; Clipse’s Pusha T puts it clearly: “I hate Jive. I hate them motherfuckers. With all my heart and all the passion and my soul I hate these bitches. It’s about the lynching of every staff member up in this mother fucker.” Well then. Tell us how you really feel, Pusha. Jive made sure they put a serious blemish on this record, halting its progression for years, and then preventing Big Boi from releasing all the material he wanted to put out. They haunted the record after its leaving their base, blocking Andre 3000 from appearing on the album. This effectively separated the two MCs on record for the first time in their careers, and it wasn’t by their choice. If you’ve somehow missed “Royal Flush,” featuring Three Stacks and Raekwon, go download the track, because it won’t come with your album, courtesy of Jive.
Okay, so beyond all the drama leading up to its release, how does it all sound? The best answer I can provide is, well, not quite how it should. Is the album bad? Lord no. Yet, it’s just not quite what one would hope for from a Big Boi album. Speakerboxxx is one of the best straight up rap records of the last decade, so to be fair, expectations were high. Regardless, 3000 is missed, and the guests that are present are a bit suspect. Whether people recognize it or not, Antwan is one of the best MCs in the game right now, his flow and voice itself commands an easygoing, predominant presence. Essentially, he may be the best “Southern” MC since Scarface (Andre has gone above and beyond this label, doesn’t count). So, if you’re so damn good, why waste so much of our time with guests?
Nearly every single track features another MC, and face it, it’s the OutKast member we paid to see. The Dungeon Family can’t really be criticized for being around, they’re part of the fam, and that’s how it goes. This doesn’t really excuse Big Boi’s persistent over-reliance on guest spots. T.I. shows up on “Tangerine” (which may well feature the album’s best production) just to strut around going, “Hey, I’m T.I., remember?” (although it should be noted that he seems to have truly perfected his Southern flow), Jamie Foxx seems too tepid for a Big Boi album (it’s still funny to me that he’s so successfully transferring into “gangsta” territory after blowing up by having Tom Cruise beat him up repeatedly – I still think of the guy as an actor, but he seems to prefer singing nowadays), and Gucci Mane is just a joke. Then there’s Yelawolf, the new “white rapper,” who pointlessly raps on the 3000-produced (to show they at least worked together on some level) “You Ain’t No DJ.” I won’t try and tell you who I think he sounds like, but who do these lines make you think of? “Yeah, I’m pale / but I’ll impale you with an Impala.” Hmm. If Big Boi insisted on stuffing guests into his album, why not get some real talent on the record? Gone are the friends he brought in for Speakerboxxx: Killer Mike, Ludacris, Big Gipp, Cee-Lo, and Jay-Z, among others. True, several of them are from the Family too, but they’re better members than most of those featured on this album. If there’s anyone Antwan shoulda thrown some spotlight to, it’s Witchdoctor, that woulda been a feature worthwhile.
As for individual tracks, “Turns Me On” sounds so much like OutKast that it would’ve felt at a home on their next album, if it’s ever released. I mean this in the best way possible, it’s a good cut. The beat on “Follow Us” also says old school ‘Kast, but the Vonnegutt chorus feels awkwardly pasted in. The next straight three, “Shutterbug,” “General Patton,” and “Tangerine” are all among the album’s best tracks, it would’ve been a dream had the entire album remained at this level. From there it’s a grab bag of decent to good tracks. The beat on “The Train Part II” takes the album to nearly ethereal heights, it’s a bit like “13th Floor/Growing Old” for 2010 (minus 3000’s greater insight). This would seem a logical closer of the album, but when “Back Up Plan” comes in, it’s so damn good it doesn’t matter. It’s one of the best tracks Boi’s ever been involved in, and that’s saying something.
Ultimately, this an album mixed with the great and the passable. Some tracks are fantastic while others simply carry you along to the next. While some of the guests add to the fun (Janelle Monáe, duh), more of them are only detractors, it’s the 2001 gripe all over again. Jive is certainly responsible for many of the lacking aspects of the album, but as much as we can hate them, this record is still what it is, and what that is, is good, but not quite classic. Its middle and end are its strongest components, had the entire record operated at that level, we’d be talking one fantastic record. Instead, it contains ups and downs, and this record’s ups are some serious highs, and it’s certainly worth your time to find them.