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The end of OutKast?

Does ‘Idlewild’ mark hip-hop duo’s demise? Let’s examine the evidence
MUSIC OUTKAST
OutKast members Antwan \"Big Boi\" Patton, right, and Andre \"3000\" Benjamin at are photographed at their recording studio in Atlanta, Friday Aug., 18, 2006. OutKast has long been considered a groundbreaking force, not only in hip-hop, but in all of pop music. Somhow, though, it took Benjamin and Patton almost a decade before they finally got an OutKast film _ this week's \"Idlewild\" _ on movie screens.John Amis / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

There are two kinds of OutKast fans in the world: B.H.Y. (Before “Hey Ya!”) and A.H.Y. (After “Hey Ya!”). For those who somehow expunged the infectious tune from memory, Hey Ya!” was the insanely popular hit from OutKast’s 2003 breakthrough double LP “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” (La Face). You couldn’t escape it. The delirious genre skipping song straddled radio formats, from hip-hop to hard rock to adult contemporary to Disney radio. It spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 singles chart, and was briefly displaced by the album’s other hit, “The Way You Move.”

“Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” was groundbreaking as well — selling more than five million copies and becoming the first hip-hop LP to win Grammy’s Album of the Year. But record’s biggest distinction is that it’s actually two solo works packaged under the duo’s single moniker. Instead of working together as they had since their high school years in Atlanta, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “3000” Benjamin separately recorded two visionary — but very different — records. Patton’s “Speakerboxxx” is a cohesive set of solid hip-hop/funk. And Benjamin’s “The Love Below” is a gleefully disjointed set of musical styles, and not very hip-hop at all.

Despite the raves, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” kicked up a dust storm of rumors among hardcore B.H.Y. fans. Were these solo efforts the beginning of the end? OutKast denies an imminent break-up (but hey, so did Brad and Jennifer). Mixed reviews for the new OutKast movie vehicle “Idlewild,” and its accompanying soundtrack fire the debate. Will one of the most innovative musical partnerships continue to make great music — or will Big Boi and André 3000 go the way of Simon & Garfunkle?

Meanwhile, the evidence for the argument either way is only circumstantial (and not very objective at that). Here, you be the judge:

OutKast is overThe “Idlewild” soundtrack stinks! On the Web site Straight.com,critic Martin Turenne describes this rag time/rap pastiche as both an “overblown conceptual miscarriage” and “the latest installment in the ongoing disintegration of rap’s best group.” One unimpressed Amazon reviewer complains, “they need to go back to being dope Southern M.C.s instead of this corn hop they droppin.”

The movie stinks too! It’s a rap musical set in the 30s — that’s just stupid (some say). Patton’s tough-guy speakeasy owner and Benjamin’s tortured piano player are two-dimensional, and neither has the acting chops to make up for it. Director Bryan Barber comes from music videos, and his nausea-inducing jump cuts make it show. Plus, all the female characters are either harpies or hos.

André only wants to sing and be weird. “L.A.” Weekly reporter Earnest Hardy describes Benjamin’s “Idlewild” character as an “unintentional confirmation that André’s own public persona over the past few years — one in which his eccentricity and expression of artistic otherness (he’s a post-hip-hop, electro-jazz retro-futuristic seeker) feels increasingly contrived.” Whether he’ll return to the rap he abandoned on “The Love Below” remains to been seen. “I just had an idea for a song called ‘Mid-Rap Crisis,” Benjamin joked in a recent AP interview. “Our music don’t sound like what’s going on.”

They haven’t really worked together for six years. All their outside interests keep them from the hip-hop that made previous releases like “Aquemini” and “Stankonia” so great (it’s been said). Benjamin is developing a clothing line and working on a Cartoon Network series. This fall, Patton releases his second solo record on his own label, Purple Ribbon. Both are pursing acting careers. (Besides “Idlewild,” Benjamin’s been in “Four Brothers” and “Be Cool” and Patton got great reviews in “ATL.”)

High school couples never stay together. Ask Dr. Phil

OutKast is foreverThe “Idlewild” soundtrack is misunderstood. “This album is what I wanted it to be,” raves one Amazon reviewer. “Completely different and unpredictable.” Another points out that there’s “not much good rap out these days so this is a welcome release from a group that experiments with its sound. That’s what music should be.” Some online apologists ask fans to remember that “Idlewild is a soundtrack that supplements the movie, not an album supplemented by a movie.”

The movie has a lot going for it. “One of the weakest and most ridiculous aspects of popular culture is its narcissistic now-ness,” writes “Village Voice” movie critic Michael Atkinson. His “Idlewild” review goes on to say, “the movie assembles a Depression morphed and tickled with hip-hop, digital animation, and movie memories. But “Idlewild” has a sober, loving respect for history and the old South, and there by grants itself a measure of distinction.” So there.

OutKast is, was, and will always be about experimentation. “Their name should tell you their story,” says one online fan. “They have actually grown more into that name now than ever before.” According to an Amazon reviewer, “Followers of OutKast know that Big Boi and André 3000 always push the envelope.” And as Patton says in the “L.A. Weekly” interview, “We’re still students of music. We’re still learning, still looking for that moment.”

Big Boi and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark agree. In a 2003 campaign ad, Clark tells some young constituents, “I don’t care what the other candidates say, I don’t think OutKast is really breaking up.” And in a recent Associated Press interview, Patton confirmed it. “All them haters would love for us to break up … sorry haters!”

It’s good for couples to have outside interests. Ask Dr. Phil.

New York City-based writer Helen A.S. Popkin hopes OutKast fans, both new and old, will follow the advice of one Amazon reviewer and “Put down the Hatorade and pick up the love.”