Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot- The Son of Chico Dusty (2010)

(Def Jam)


I'll be honest -- I'm troubled by the fact that this record isn't clicking with me more than it is. It gives me no pleasure to brand one of the world's most talented musicians, and one of this year's most universally acclaimed albums, with anything less than highest praise. Straight up, here's the truth: Most everyone is loving this one. I'm digging it a lot but I don't love it; I'm severely outnumbered. Chances are you'll side with the folks who are unequivocally flipping for it, and you're likely to find their smart, articulate reviews more helpful. Big Boi undoubtedly deserves the praise, and this is on its way to being a modern classic. But if you're curious about why I'm not fully sold on it, do read on.

Few things seemed like more a foregone conclusion than Big Boi's solo debut being an excellent record. I almost have this feeling that it's one of those "automatically brilliant" works, the sort of thing everybody's formed an opinion on well ahead of release date. I certainly anticipated this as a landmark, the sort of permanent turntable-fixture that even Outkast's lesser albums have become. I'm not particularly disappointed with it, either. I'm just not blown away -- and in another year, an inferior year, that might not matter much. But this year, I'm just overrun with music that has stabbed my gut and moved me on a level beyond what I'm getting from the Big Boi LP.

Remember what Paul McCartney said about Get Back slash Let It Be? That it was an old album before it even came out? I have that strange, discomforting sensation in regard to Left Foot. Recording began in January of 2007, an entire lifetime ago in musical terms, and far enough back that the year can spark a note of nostalgia. It was supposed to come out in 2008 but label disputes, supplemental material, and other delays kept piling up until the record inevitably becomes a time-lapse photograph of three years of hip hop innovations. If you're nice. If you're not nice, it becomes a final resting place for a number of stale trends amidst all the experiments.

Big Boi is undeniably playing with tricks and ideas new to him, and largely new to us -- the massive, blurping, recontextualized synth sound of "Daddy Fat Sax"; the keenly infectious vocal-beat experiment on "Shutterbug"; the metallic funk of "You Ain't No DJ"; the impossibly heavy, murkily evocative slamming of "Tangerine," one of the album's scattered notes of absolute perfection; Organized Noize's head-spinning juxtaposition of soft rock sound and aggressive rhyming on "Turns Me On" (OutKast heroes ON are the star producers of this record; their tracks come off best of all). Some of these connect and some don't. But one thing I know about music I love is something I can't articulate: there's a spark. Something that comes out and grabs and intrigues, regardless of setting. I keep listening and listening for that certain spark in Left Foot and it all just seems too explicit, too straightforward, too grounded and basic. I almost feel as though Big Boi could make a record like this with one eye open.

Part of what's missing is what I feel is missing from a lot of hip hop far more popular than this. Dance music requires a certain abandon to come across properly; hip hop is much more than dance music, but I think Boi is operating from a body vernacular to craft his work. It's likely just a question of taste, but for me, despite their immense depth of detail, these tracks don't bang and move like they keep wanting to. The beats are almost tentative; as soon as the pupils roll back and that thing starts to happen, it's like he loses interest and moves to the next wild idea. That restlessness is wonderful for an artist and proves he's at the top of his game. I just want the record, the songs to breathe a tad more. Sometimes, when they do, the result feels too familiar; the now nearly expired slow-burn radio rap sound exemplified by T.I.'s classic "What You Know" has the awkward effect of making a few cuts here seem oversized, dated, obvious: "Shine Blockas" is inoffensive enough but "General Patton" grates, with its three central elements -- the stadium backdrop, the choral sample, and Boi's usual quick, breezy vox -- failing entirely to hang together, while the Eminem-like "Follow Us" owes a bit to the heavy rap-rock sound of yore, Vonnegutt's vocal hook sending us back into afternoons dragged into Hot Topic with younger siblings.

The greatest virtue of Left Foot is Big Boi's flow, which is consistently breathtaking; his double-speed flair and wit keep every track moving and falling onto the ear if not the feet with ease. These lyrics aren't the best he's done, but despite a few fallbacks into generic boasting here and there, they're still frequently, effortlessly ingenious. He talks and rants about '08 politics, coke boasting and busting, marital committment, and well, "My heart says 'Do Not Disturb,' and yours is like a doorknob, everybody get a turn." It's never seemed fair to declare Boi the less intellectually stimulating half of OutKast when his time on the mic is so economical, so well-crafted, so damned addictive. (I mean, who listens to rock & roll for intellectual stimulation? Wit and wisdom, maybe, both of which Big Boi offers in spades.) The rapping is so consistently great on this LP I have to conclude all my problems with it are production matters. Tons of great rap albums have as many producers as this one and scamper back and forth from one to another track by track... but I can't remember the last time I heard that happening, so explicitly, until I feel like I'm listening to a years-spanning greatest hits collection. Which, in a sense, I am.

That's probably not the full body of what's bugging me here. While its length (just under an hour) is perfectly reasonable, I think the record has an unfortunate sprawl: there are too many songs -- by my count it can stand to lose three: the only out-and-out failures are "General Patton," the disappointingly annoying "You Ain't No DJ," and the unnecessary Jamie Foxx guest spot "Hustle Blood" -- and the best songs should go on longer than they do: the Prince-like "Shutterbug" (3:35), the exceptional George Clinton pastiche "Fo Yo Sorrows" (3:42), the ideal Big Boi showcase "Night Night" with its blazing momentum (3:45), and the startling "Back Up Plan" (3:43). As with Arcade Fire's The Suburbs -- a record I do love, but with reservations -- the key word is "overwrought." Despite the ability to make their point (and a brilliant album) in ten or twelve tracks, these artists drive the point home with an extra three, five, seven, etc. In the age of shuffle, it shouldn't be an issue, but listening to the album straight through is exhausting, and makes it all sound less interesting and exciting than it is. I'd wager even the act of having to pick up the vinyl to change the side would help it, as it certainly did when I got the Suburbs LP. Do I sound like a nutcase?

There are some notes of total, life-affirming wonder here: along with the aforementioned "Tangerine," there is Janelle Monáe's glorious cameo on "Be Still"; as on her "Tightrope," the cumulative effect of these two breathing life into a track together is a thing to behold. But best of all are the two closing tracks from Organized Noize: "The Train Pt. 2" reverses every problem with the attempts at Tyrannosaurus-clossus production earlier in the LP -- it's intense and dramatic in all the best ways, musically tricky, genuinely new and singular, teeming with modern life. But the most fascinating piece of work here is the finale, the unprotected-sex lament slash PSA "Back Up Plan," not only well-expressed and funny but a fully successful pop move, as catchy and innovatively oddball as anything here. It propels forward in alternately gentle and furious moments, with the logic and thrust of great storytelling. But again, it cuts away just when it's starting to really cook.

And then, I wonder if another personal prejudice is coloring me here. I tend to pout about this sort of thing, when a career that is at its absolute peak is suddenly grounded. I was extremely hesitant to ever listen to Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean's solo records because I was so irritated about the Fugees being gone. I've never been able to objectively evaluate Gorillaz because Blur was so special to me that I spend Gorillaz's albums demanding no one in particular to know why Damon Albarn isn't working on new Blur shit instead. OutKast hasn't broken up; they claim they'll be back in the game in a few years. Truthfully, it's not simply that I miss André 3000; I adored The Love Below and I'm anxious to hear what he does solo next. What I miss is OuKast itself -- these two cats playing off each other, which made for frankly some of the most compelling hip hop of the last two decades. If not for a completely maddening dispute with Jive Records (who inexplicably felt this album was too uncommercial to release), we'd have Dré (who produced "You Ain't No DJ") guesting on Sir Lucious. Maybe that's another reason I'm not jumping as high in the air for joy about this album as a lot of people -- the record industry is still a fuckin' life-taker.

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