As OutKast prepared to release “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” last fall, even the ever-adventurous Andre 3000 worried that the group had finally gone too far.
“I may be out of touch,” said the musician known to wear anything from ski boots to platinum wigs. “It’s always a chance of falling off. We’ve never really caught a brick yet, but we’ve always walked that line.”
Andre’s fears turned out to be what made OutKast’s fifth album their biggest yet. Despite leaving their typical rap-funk milieu for a mixture of everything from jazz to pop to rock, OutKast brought even more fans into their fold.
The album has sold more than 3.5 million copies since its September release, spawned the nation’s top two singles (the No. 1 “Hey Ya!” from Andre and “I Like The Way You Move” from counterpart Big Boi) and netted three Grammy awards, including album of the year.
“With every album, we tend to gain new fans here and there,” says Big Boi. “So I guess with this one here, being that the songs are from every corner of music, every genre’s covered all the way through, it spread a little faster. It’s cool to see OutKast fans willing to go on this adventure with us, this musical adventure.”
The adventure almost never happened. Coming off their last studio album, 2000’s Grammy-winning “Stankonia,” Big Boi (Antoine Patton) started working on the next disc. But Andre (Andre Benjamin), focusing on acting, was creating music for a film project that ended up evaporating.
Andre was left with several songs completely atypical even for OutKast: jazzy slow grooves about relationships that featured Andre crooning, not rapping.
Andre says the music — which he dubs “sophistifunk” — reflected his mellow mood, a marked departure from the frenetic, flamboyant character he had morphed into over the years.
“It was soothing to me, and the music of jazz sounded like where I wanted to be in my life at the time,” he said. “It sounded real cool and blue; It didn’t sound hot, excited, urgent and loud, and I think 'Stankonia’ is that. It was so much going on in the last couple of years, I just wanted to put the brakes on everything, slow down.”
Two becomes oneAt the same time, Big Boi was working on his own solo project as well as the OutKast disc, which Andre had helped to map out. So the pair decided to simply put out two solo discs as one double OutKast album.
Although Andre and Big Boi have been friends since high school, they are so different — Big Boi’s image is straight-up hip-hop versus Andre’s ultra-eclectic persona — that breakup rumors have hounded them since their 1994 debut. Releasing two solo records fueled that speculation, which had the pair laughing.
“It’s brotherhood,” said Big Boi. “We’re just both kind of getting older, finding new interests and new things that excite us in different ways.”
“We’ll always love each other, but I think we need to venture right now,” said Andre, who compared the current state of their relationship to siblings leaving the nest.
They ventured so far as to release dueling singles. Big Boi’s took off first, but Andre’s Beatlesque “Hey Ya!” became the eventual champ, becoming the most omnipresent song on radio.
“We’re selling the same album, you know what I’m saying?” Big Boi said. “We knew that when we did it, one song was going to go one way and the other song was going to go the other way. We’ve got both sides of the fence right now.”
While the discs are wildly different, if they do share anything, it’s how much they stand out from the hip-hop currently on the radio. Both rappers say they’ve grown weary of a scene they believe has lost its edge.
“There’s a lot of quote-unquote hip-hop acts today, they stick to beats and rhymes, and we really like to experiment and play with a lot of different elements of the music,” said Big Boi. “We keep it exciting, and I guess that’s where that weirdo funk comes in.”
Andre admits that rap doesn’t excite him any more. He can’t remember the last time he bought a rap album, and laments the fact that hip-hop is more about partying in clubs that rapping these days.
He allows that his age (Andre and Big Boi are both 29) might be influencing his thinking.
“It doesn’t feel the same to me like when I was in high school, when Tribe Called Quest was out, and NWA,” Andre said. “I can’t really feel what a lot of rappers are talking about, and maybe it’s because I’m not in the clubs. When I listen to rap music now, it seems like a lot of people don’t have nothin’ to say ... It’s pretty much the same story we’ve been hearing — 'From the ghetto, I’m rapping now, I made it big.”’
For years, OutKast has been pushing hip-hop in a different direction, and fans have followed. The pair promises to push the envelope even farther with their next album, the soundtrack to an action-comedy-drama set to air on HBO later this year.
Will fans follow on their next musical adventure?
“My main focus is making the music,” Big Boi said. “If they come along, they come along. If they don’t, maybe we’ll catch them on the next one.”