Speakerboxxx The Love Below

While visiting my alma mater last week, I spent some time working from the back room of a coffee shop, the same room where I used to drag my acoustic guitar on stage for open mic night when I was in college. That room dredges up lots of memories, but none of them are as simultaneously triumphant and embarrassing as the one where I strum and sing my way through a cover of “Hey Ya!” — triumphant because people ate that shit up (BMOC!), embarrassing because I was a walking cliche. Let’s face it, if there’s anything more cliche than playing acoustic covers at your college open mic night, it’s covering “Hey Ya!” at open mic night during fall quarter 2003. What’s cooler than being cool? Not covering “Hey Ya!” at open mic night, that’s for sure.

In my defense, who could resist the charms of the Best Song Of The Millennium — who especially among those of us with functional knowledge of basic guitar chords and a desire to win the approval of our peers? The song was everywhere that fall. I remember attending a Radiohead show with some friends on the Hail To The Thief tour, and all any of us could talk about before the band came on was that great new Outkast song. It certainly is great, and not just in terms of Grammys (Best Urban/Alternative Performance), chart history (twentieth best selling single of the aughts) or cultural reverberations (it paved the way for fellow Atlanta rap veteran Cee-Lo Green’s entire second career). It’s just plain great on its own terms, the terms of universal human experience. No use trying to fight it: “Hey Ya!” is a pop masterpiece, cartoonish though it may be. It’s got the fire, the hooks, the squelching bass, the gleeful chorale, the propulsive rhythm, the insta-meme quotables. It’s got the juice, as a Chicago kid who probably grew up idolizing Andre 3000 might put it. It comes on at a wedding, and no matter how much you might not want to dance at that moment, you relent. Alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright.

If only the album it’s attached to wasn’t such a noxious turd — The Love Below, that is. I’ve got love for Speakerboxxx, Big Boi’s contribution to the pair of solo projects Outkast released as a package 10 years ago today, but we’ll get to that shortly. In the meantime, let’s put clothespins on our noses and revisit Three Stacks’ pinched loaf.

The Love Below is an attempt at the kind of funkadelic genre mash Janelle Monáe successfully pulled off with The Electric Lady 10 years later. It was probably a big influence on Monáe, actually. But whereas The Electric Lady is electric indeed, its sprawl continually pushed forward by kinetic songwriting and the unyielding force of its star’s personality, The Love Below is like being trapped in an elevator with a Prince impersonator who refuses to break character. Every song seems like it could have grown up into something special if it hadn’t been smothered by affectation. The result is that only a few moments hold their own against Outkast’s otherwise exceptional discography.

Other than “Hey Ya!”, the best track by far is the Big Boi-assisted synth-funk powerhouse “Roses,” and even that one stanks like misogyny (or, in Andre’s unfortunate parlance, “like boo boo boo”) thanks to the excessive “bitch” bombs. The same uncomfortable undertones percolate beneath the otherwise enjoyable G-funk crooner “She Lives In My Lap.” Dré’s not in peak rapping form here, but compared to the rest of the record, the rare instances when he does opt to spit are revelatory: the third act of “Happy Valentine’s Day,” the middle of the jazzy drum-machine banger “Spread,” and especially the lengthy autobiographical closer “A Life In The Day Of Benjamin André,” which addresses Andre’s relationship with Erykah Badu head-on. I hate to sound like those people who complain about Jonny Greenwood not playing enough guitar on latter day Radiohead albums, but in these moments it’s clear Andre is squandering his gift on this melange of failed experiments and forced genre exercises.

Wobbling opener “Love Hater” is cocktail jazz from a nightclub where you can’t pay your tab and scram soon enough. “Dracula’s Wedding” basically invented Gnarls Barkley — and not the glorious “Crazy” side of Gnarls Barkley; the clenched, whispery micro-soul retail boutique music side of Gnarls Barkley. “Vibrate”’s zonked-out mood music is sleepy in the wrong way. Andre’s outsized persona squashes the otherwise pleasant Norah Jones guitar ballad “Take Off Your Cool.” A DnB/jazz hybrid instrumental version of “My Favorite Things” could have only come from a man in desperate need of an editor. And I can’t imagine a more oppressive rap skit than Andre and Farnsworth Bentley reciting a “Who’s On First?” knockoff in strained British accents. What’s worse than listening to this stuff is realizing its success probably encouraged Andre to go through with Idlewild.

It’s a shame rock fans like me wasted hours and hours trying to parse The Love Below when we could have been indulging in Speakerboxxx, a wonderfully scenic bridge from Stankonia to Big Boi’s proper solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. There’s 2003′s other ubiquitous Outkast single, “The Way You Move,” of course, but that’s barely a highlight compared to the rest of the sonic wonderland Daddy Fat Stacks inhabits here. The opening sequence is an ecstatic reminder of Outkast’s strengths: the spastic digitized aggro-phonk of “GhettoMusick”; the moody grooves of “Unhappy”; the post-Parliament swagger of “Bowtie.” The rest of the record adds shades and contours to that world, presenting a fully realized idiosyncratic vision rather than a desperate splatter of intentional weirdness. Putting Jay-Z and Killer Mike on the same track is Big Boi’s own superior version of strange.

Speakerboxxx was our first indication that Big Boi could thrive without his partner. Andre was always the more colorful character, the one who nabbed people’s attention outside hip-hop circles. It’s fair to wonder if Big Boi could have ever crossed over to pop and indie audiences without Andre to kick in the door for him. But in terms of producing classic music, it seems like Andre needed Big Boi a lot more than Big Boi needed Andre. Whereas Andre works best with a foil to ground his outré impulses (see: his flurry of spectacular guest spots in recent years), his buddy Antwan Patton can stomp through banger after banger of his own with workmanlike power and precision. He knows exactly who he is, and he understands the balance between artful experimentation and accessibility that made Outkast so iconic. He gets that a gifted rapper doesn’t have to abandon hip-hop to be an iconoclast. The Love Below panders to a concept of maturity that relegates rap to a lesser art form, a theory Speakerboxxx repudiates with a strut and a scowl.

Still, even the immensely satisfying Speakerboxxx can’t hold its own against Outkast’s previous records. Even though Big Boi and Organized Noize had Outkast’s winning formula down to a science, that sound just isn’t as explosive without Andre in the mix. To paraphrase their last shining moment together before splintering completely, the whole world loves it when they do get down. There was a powerful push and pull driving “Rosa Parks,” “B.O.B.,” “ATLiens,” and all the other big hits. On Speakerboxxx, the absence of that friction resulted in the codification of that signature sound into something satisfying but not exactly breathtaking. In hindsight, separating the duo into its component parts mostly just demonstrated how special their partnership was. A decade later, it’s about time they stopped depriving us of that.

Comments (42)
  1. never understood or understand the dislike for the Love Below, because I think is it LOVELY

  2. Boy are you right about this album having been everywhere Fall semester 2003. People just threw it on at parties from beginning to end. Even so, I am amazed at how few songs I can sing from memory looking at the track list. This album was huge for a year or so, and then seemed to vanish, with the possible exception of Hey Ya, which I honestly don’t even like that much.

    Certain tracks definitely got in my head though. Prototype in particular reminds me of the girl who dumped me around that time, I must have listened to that song a million times trying to get over her. (Postal Service was also clutch at that time.) And Ghetto Musick blew my mind when I first heard it. But yeah, there’s a lot of filler and forgettable stuff here. Maybe I’ll give it a listen later on, although the nostalgia for that era of my life will be a little overwhelming.

  3. “Everybody need to quit acting hard ‘n shit, before you get your ass whooooooped”

  4. Speakerboxxx ftw! Love that Album

  5. Thank you, Chris DeVille, for confirming that I’m not crazy.

  6. I think all this Love Below backlash is a direct reaction to its universal acclaim and popularity at the time. It won Album of the Year and is one of the best selling albums of all time, while being an idiosyncratic piece of hip-hop – a 2 and a half hour, high concept album by a group that had come from rather humble rap origins. The joke at the time was how little everyone seemed to care about Speakerboxxx in favor of the Love Below.

    I certainly don’t agree with this review. Speakerboxxx is a great rap album with beautiful beats and an interesting energy, but I will always stand by the weirdness of Love Below. It has its excesses, but it’s bound to by concept. Its mixture of genres proved massively influential for the rap of the 2000s. A few of the songs are undercooked and the skits are mostly whack, but what OutKast album has skits that aren’t? This album is important and still holds up today in my opinion.

    • “the weirdness of Love Below” – that pretty much sums it up for me too. It’s not a bad record by any stretch, but it certainly is odd.

    • That’s a nice way to tout The Love Below, unfortunately it’s rooted in fantasy. A lot of critics called Andre out on his pretentiousness, his songs’ lack of melody and his lack of singing skill. There’s cool shit on there, amazing skits, there’s also some complete filler. But the album will always be associated with Hey Ya (genius single) and Roses (shit single). A Love Below is, while a really cool album, a rare misstep from Andre.

      Also, you’re forgetting: people fucking looooooved Speakerboxxx.

      • ..and after consulting MetaCritic I concede The Love Below was universally acclaimed. 91% (for the pair) and just one neg review, from good ole Rolling Stone…i must’ve read that one.

        Also, wanna throw out there, Behold A Lady and Pink & Blue are hilarious and great love tracks. And Spread… f’n forgot about Spread. That is one of the funkiest songs!

      • Roses is a shit single? I hope that’s just a clever pun based on the chorus and not a judgment of the song.

        Roses is great.

  7. was calling Love Below a noxious turd just trolling? Album maybe isn’t the best but it is solid. Draculas Wedding!

  8. “It’s a shame rock fans like me wasted hours and hours trying to parse The Love Below when we could have been indulging in Speakerboxxx.” My life ten years ago summarized in one sentence. Kudos, Chris.

  9. Chris DeVille is to The Love Below what Cruella de Vil is to dalmations

  10. One time a rapper wrote a song with a melody and chords. It was the Song of the Decade. No other rappers knew about melodies or chords so no one else attempted it.

    • lllllllllmmmmmffaaooooooooo

      • a p.s. after perusing c.r. woods’ comments…

        Then another rapper-producer emerged – he had exquisite taste and the ability to make highly original beats. He also had the intellect and confidence to say what no one else will say. He married the chick with the finest ass and became The Last Rock Star.

  11. Just two little things:

    1. This is a lovely piece of writing that stirred all kinds of nostalgia in me, positive and negative, and thank you Chris DeVi for that.
    2. Bless this here for reminding me to go listen to The Rooster, because turns out some horns and some cockadoodles were exactly what my day needed.

  12. This article put the website and its fan base in a bad light.. Speakerboxxx > The Love Below, really? They were both excellent albums and deserve all praise, but to downplay one of the decades best conceptual projects suggests a superficial perspective. To each his/her own, but as a music fanatic and a listener who understood the image Andre 3000 attempted to paint I find myself surprised to read a second rate review on a top shelf website. And as for the comment section “peanut gallery”, I’ve seen a lot of you comment on how genius Death Grips is… nough said

  13. To dismiss The Love Below as “a noxious turd” is to out oneself as ignorant of everything Prince was doing in the post-Purple Rain ’80s. It’s the spiritual sequel to all of Prince’s psychedelic-funk experimentation and I feel sorry for anyone unable to appreciate its brilliance.

    • Post-Purple Rain Prince demonstrates Mr. Nelson’s complete inability to self-edit.

    • If wanna hear post-Purple Rain Prince, I’ll just listen to post-Purple Rain Prince. I think The Love below is a lovely album, but Speakerboxx is a bigger artistic statement. Andre aims to a Prince-level quality, but he doesn’t really get there just by emulating what you’d expect from a Prince album.

  14. Right on, brother. This is the objectively correct reading of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”

    Hell, I would even go one step further and say that it’s the objectively correct reading of Big Boi and André’s entire relationship, wherein André — who seems a bit weird and standoffish and so appeals to Whitey McWhiterson’s haughtier instincts — makes “Hey Ya” and as a result gets a free pass on the rest of his masturbatory Prince Power Point Presentation.

    Meanwhile, Big Boi — who honest-to-goodness just wants to make music but still supports whatever stupid thing André is doing at the time — drops one of the dopest hip hop albums ever, and basically gets slept on until he drops ANOTHER of the dopest hip hop albums ever, upon which time Whitey McWhiterson finally asks, “Holy shit… You’re telling me he was this talented THE WHOLE TIME?”

    **CUT TO: André’s Gillette commercial**

    I like the waaaaaay you moooove
    – wordupmang

    • “Whitey McWhiterson” Really? You’re making it a black/white thing?

      • Well, I didn’t mention black people at all, so no, I guess.

        But seriously, Pitchy McPitchfork just didn’t seem to get the point across quite as well. If you find that phrase less offensive then you could just Ctrl + F + Replace my comment in your mind.

        My apologies, big dawg.

        • No need for apologies, nor has any offense been taken, I just don’t think it has anything to do with the article, or Outkast in general. Outkast has had a large “Whitey McWhiterson” audience since Aquemini, at least, and maybe all the way back to ATLiens. So there was no sleeping on, or sudden realization that Big Boi is dope. People just really loved The Love Below, which is why I’m calling a bit of revisionist history on all this badmouthing of it now.

          • Chyea — I most definitely feel you, brother!

            I was really being tongue in cheek. I love the hell out of André, and I love the hell out of “The Love Below.” I’m just digging the fact that Sir Luscious is enjoying some time in the ATLien sun. Although I might have overstated the point a bit, I do believe there was a sense among music pundits that Big Boi was there to provide some sort of “credibility” to what Outkast was doing, while Dré brought the vision and the creativity or what have you.

            Then you listen to “Speakerboxxx” and “The Son of Chico Dusty” and you’ve got to say, “Nu uh, Big Boi is just as essential to the singular Outkast sound as his (slightly) weirder partner.”

            I just didn’t say all of that in my original comment, what with brevity being wit and all.

  15. Not that it matters, SB/TLB is barely an Outkast album.

    How many tracks did they actually do together? The separation was well underway…

  16. What are you talking about regarding The Love Below? Is this some kind of revisionist history? Because nearly everyone I know absolutely loved/loves that disc. Do you honestly think Spread, She Lives In My Lap, Hey Ya, Pink & Blue, Vibrate, A Life In The Day Of Benjamin Andre, and, oh, pretty much the rest of the album are bad songs? I mean, honestly, I’m shocked by your assessment. Not much more to say than that. Just, shocked.

    Artists should be allowed to grow and change to whatever degree they’re comfortable doing so. Hopefully, when they choose to push boundaries, the art they give to the world justifies their desire to do so. Outkast made a career out of reaching for new targets and hitting bullseyes. This album is no different, in my opinion. Both discs are filled with great tracks, and if they didn’t care about them being separate discs that felt like solo albums, why should we? I love this album, my only complaint being that it’s taken ten years (at least) to get a proper follow-up (Idlewild is nice, but it’s not exactly a proper Outkast album).

    • I remember that among pop and rock fans The Love Below was universally beloved. Among hip-hop/r&b fans, reaction was a little bit more varied (although Hey Ya was always beloved by most).

      • Well I would definitely not classify myself as a hip-hop/r&b fan for the most part (I love some of it, but very little that approaches the mainstream). I’ve listened to more electronic, jazz and classical for the last twenty years than anything else. But if I was forced to choose between the two I suppose I would place myself in the pop and rock group (although, really, I’m more just AWARE of what goes on in pop circles than being an actual listener or consumer).

  17. One last thing…

    “You bring the potato chips, I’ll bring the hot saaauuuuuce….”

    Might as well have fun.

  18. I disagree with pretty much everything you say about The Love Below (except that “My Favorite Things” should’ve been left off), but for some reason I hated this criticism the most: “Andre’s outsized persona squashes the otherwise pleasant Norah Jones guitar ballad ‘Take Off Your Cool.’” I have no idea what that means! It is such a slight, brief, lovely song. What is being squashed there? What about it is outsized?

    It’s difficult to dispute your main point here, which is that you do not like The Love Below, but it seems like you are just doling out criticisms indiscriminately, whether or not they fit the song you’re talking about.

  19. I still really like The Love Below, but I agree Speakerboxx is the better half. It was a great prelude to Sir Lucious Left Loot (had it not been for MBDTF, it would’ve been remembered as the rap album from 2010), and while I appreciate Andre’s ambition, I think there’s few rappers that manage to be as consistent and exciting in a regular basis like Big Boi. I also feel that Speakerboxx uses throwback hip-hop with contemporary foundations, in production and flow, and it comes off as more of an original album.

  20. I agree with the general message of this article, but it’s much too harsh on The Love Below. I really enjoyed both albums back in the day, but Love Below was my favorite. I recently revisited them and actually found that I like Speakerboxx a hell of a lot more. Nonetheless, I will always have love for The Love Below.

  21. No, she didn’t.

  22. Huh? How can a record have a “pop masterpiece”, a “synth-funk powerhouse”, an “enjoyable g-funk crooner” and a “jazzy drum-machine banger” and yet somehow also be a “noxious turd”? And why completely ignore a jaw-dropper like Prototype? I get that this record isn’t for everyone but I got into funk through James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton and Prince, so Andre’s “outsized persona” sure works for me. Yeah there’s some crap on here, and he’s trying too hard to sound like Prince, but I still love this record.

  23. don’t get the revisionist preference for “Speakerboxxx.” It’s solid sure but I’ll take the first half of “Love Below” over it.

    to be fair, after the skit in the middle it falls way the hell off for the most part

  24. Well, The Love below isn’t that bad and Speakerboxxx isn’t that great… but still love them both

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