OutKast’s ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ Turns 10: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
After the jewelry flossing, shiny suit-wearing era that was the late ’90s, the early 2000s saw hip-hop take a more hardcore turn. 2003 was the year of a young emcee from Queens named 50 Cent. His debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ ripped through the Billboard charts, radio and just about every car in the ‘hood and the ‘burbs. Jay Z also planned to take hip-hop back to its New York roots, with his retirement record (ha!), The Black Album.
Southern hip-hop was also flourishing, with the rise of rappers including: T.I., David Banner, Chingy and Ludacris. OutKast‘s massive, 39-track Speakerboxx/The Love Below dropped on September 23, 2003 in the midst of both these trends, and upended them using sounds that weren’t strongly associated with hip-hop — a risky move that ultimately paid off. The album went on to become certified diamond and went 11 times platinum, a number that rappers (hell, most artists) could only dream of now. It beat 50 Cent at the 2004 Grammys, taking the award for Best Rap Album, plus Album of the Year. On this day, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is celebrating its 10th anniversary — and it sounds just as fresh in 2013 as it did in 2003. Those achievements were no fluke.
OutKast’s previous album, 2000’s Stankonia, was deep-rooted Southern hip-hop, with songs like “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson.” As the duo matured, their musical tastes both expanded and separated — which is why Speakerboxx/The Love Below is technically two solo albums in one. Big Boi got really dirrrty and paid homage to his Georgia roots, while Andre 3000’s album reads like a musical history book — going through the decades with Little Richard‘s rock n’ roll, Prince‘s funk and The Flaming Lips‘ space-rock.
Opening the record is the jittery “GhettoMusick.” Sonically reminiscent of “B.O.B,” the song is classic OutKast — with Big Boi spitting crisp lyrics while Andre 3000 adds his quirky melody. OutKast can obviously stand alone on a tune, but over the years their secret weapon came in the form of singer-songwriter (and the duo’s mentor) — Sleepy Brown. His soulful, chicken n’ gravy vocals are the perfect foil for their boisterous lyricism — as seen with songs like “Unhappy.” It tells a sad tale of Big Boi’s childhood that’s deceptively masked underneath his almost comical accent: “I never thought that alcohol could ease the notion of the sadness. Now what used to be a happy home done turned into some bad shit! Graphic language, mild violence and the silence of the fams!”
What makes OutKast so great is their ability to draw influence from their homegrown roots, taking inspiration from jazz, R&B and funk. “The Way You Move” is a smooth tune that still gets people sliding to the dance floor — and for good reason. The ticking 808s and live horn elements combined with Sleepy’s velvety vocals make for a Southern charmer. It went one to top the Billboard Hot 100 and was one of the most successful singles of the early 2000’s. It was so catchy, in fact, that Kenny G and Earth, Wind and Fire went on to cover the song the following year.
On “Rooster,” Big Boi managed to reveal details of his personal life again in a way that wasn’t instantly noticeable unless the listener had his ears wide open. The rapper weaves in a story of being a single parent, which is veiled underneath crowing roosters and funkified guitar licks. It’s a musical statement in regards to rap music at the time. Compared to Eminem‘s grappling “Cleaning Out My Closet” (released in 2002), Big Boi’s story is almost a joyride. His technique can even be compared to how we listen to music today; lyrics act as an afterthought while buzzing synths and wild bass drops smear their vibrantly-colored lipstick all over a song, often contradicting its true meaning.
After a bombastic, 19-track explosion, Andre 3000 slows things down for The Love Below. His tracklist reads like a sweetly naughty Valentine’s Day card, with titles like “Where Are My Panties,” She Lives In My Lap” and of course “Happy Valentine’s Day.” While Big Boi’s half was a cup of Hennessy mixed with some purple drank, Andre 3000’s record is an overflowing glass of red wine, with the album tallying 20 songs. The journey begins with “Love Hater,” a jazzy ditty that showcases the singer’s falsetto and off-kilter personality: “Everybody needs someone to rub their shoulders and scratch their dandruff. And everybody need to quit actin’ hard and shit before you get your ass whooped (I’ll slap the fuck out ya!).”
Andre 3000 was the more experimental one in the duo, so a song like “Prototype” was to be expected. The groovy mid-tempo sort of sounds like if Prince got caught in a space-time warp. It may be R&B, but the production translates to other genres with ease. Check out Tame Impala‘s rock cover if you’re still unsure.
The Love Below gave ‘Dre a chance to show off his peculiar side and flex his singing muscles, a move that came off as disingenuous to O.G. OutKast fans. But he was vindicated with “Hey Ya,” arguably the most inescapable single from 2003 that became one of the best-selling songs from the past decade (and the pop masterpiece was unofficially crowned the Best Song of the Millennium by Grantland). With its energetic production tied in with his provocative lyrics (“Don’t want to meet yo’ mama OH OH/ Just want to make you cumma OH OH”), the impact of “Hey Ya” was epic. Who can honestly say they didn’t shake it like a Polaroid picture at least once?
More Prince influences are heard throughout the record, especially in “She Lives In My Lap.” Taking notes from 1985’s “She’s Always In My Hair,” ‘Dre pays homage to the singer’s crazed vocal inflections and squealing guitar riffs. And in the midst of 2003’s hardcore rap scene, a song like “Roses” shattered standards. While other rappers went the route of heavy bass lines and misogynistic lyrics, OutKast created a piano-laden odyssey.
After the release of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Big Boi and Andre 3000 joined up for the Idlewild film and soundtrack (which we’ll pretend wasn’t the final OutKast release) and then took their separate musical paths, with Big Boi releasing two albums — Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty in 2010 and Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors last year. Andre 3000 dabbled in acting (including this year’s Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side) while waffling on a return to music. He still made rare appearances on Chris Brown‘s “Deuces (Remix),” Beyonce‘s “Party,” and Frank Ocean‘s “Pink Matter,” plus he collaborated with King Bey for their divisive “Back To Black” cover.
Compared to their previous records, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was commercially appealing, but when listened to closely, it was undeniably ahead of its time. Ten years later, it’s clear the album was a turning point for hip-hop, obliterating the sonic and thematic possibilities of the genre, and thus pop music — a major feat for two rappers from the Dirty South.
OutKast has not been in the studio as a collective duo in seven years, but their six-record catalog — especially Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — gave them a voice that can’t be silenced. Big Boi summed it up best in “The Way You Move”: “We never relaxing, OutKast is everlasting.”