Music Review: Speakerboxxx | The Love Below

DISC 1

by Forester McClatchey

The album begins with a swirl of static, disorienting. Screwed-down vocals say, “This is a test.” A test of sound, yes, but also a test for hip-hop, a test for newcomers (like Killer Mike), and fundamentally a test for ‘Kast: a split album, combining twice the creative energy with twice the risk of failure.

After Stankonia dropped in 2000, it seemed like OutKast had peaked. The South had had something to say and ‘Kast had said it in three classic albums. Contemporary titans of rap like Jay-Z and Eminem deferred to OutKast as de facto monarchs of the game.  Nothing remained but to watch their throne. What more could they say?

The “Intro” to Speakerboxxx quickens with a jittery snare run produced by André. He will lurk behind the sonic veil on this portion of the album, bobbing his head. Big Boi bides his time. A gong sounds. This is a test.

*

When the album begins in earnest, we find Big in jail: “Drowning in a gray cell, to dwell in earthly hell, a pimp warrior fell.” The production of this song (“Unhappy”) provides a deceptively upbeat backdrop for Big Boi’s miniature lyrical tragedies. Speaking to himself, the narrator remembers his childhood: “Your happiness came and went like mom and dad’s relationship.” Thus, from the beginning of the album, we hear Big Boi disclaiming earthly happiness.

When the narrator gets out of jail, things have gotten worse: “What used to be a happy home done turned into some bad shit.” He’s been locked away so long that “The silence of the fams” greets him at home, with “No members to remember” him now that he has grown into a man. His old companions are gone, and his time in the trap has left him rougher and poorer. This emphasis on earthly imprisonment and human fallenness will haunt the album.

Then Big’s out of the trap, and the brass section oozes in like barbecue sauce, bathing the listener’s palate. In this next song, “Bowtie,” the emphasis is on wealth and sartorial excellence: “Crocodile on my feet,” croons Sleepy Brown, “Fox fur on my back.” Big Boi is feeling himself, and finally his flow can breathe. Syllables tumble over each other, cool, finding fissures in the beat no other rapper’s words can find, and the listener knows this is the Big Boi from ATLiens and Aquemini back with a pimp’s vengeance.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of “Unhappy” to “Bowtie” serves as a microcosm of the album’s central paradox: Big Boi as the unearthly hedonist, the pious pimp. He strokes his fox fur shoulders and laments the transience of all life.

Big Boi’s Christian cosmology, however, ultimately unites the album. And his faith feels Anglo-Saxon. Like the narrator of “The Wanderer,”[1] Big Boi insists on the transience of all earthly connections: joy, suffering, death, and (here he parts from André) even love. On “Knowing” (Alternate title: “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part III”) André 3000 returns and yells, From this point on, it only gets rougher. He repeats this mantra incessantly. Big Boi, in the most arresting verses on the album, tells the story a drug addict named Wanda whose habit bereaves her of family, funds, and hope. She turns to prostitution and theft, and the song ends with a pickpocketed john confronting her, threatening violence. “You thought you was slick,” snarls the john. Wanda cowers. It only gets rougher.

Singing the hook of “Knowing,” André suspends his search for The Love Below, and participates in Big Boi’s Anglo-Saxon vision. He suggests that it is suffering that unites every human living: “Brothers, knowing…Sisters, knowing…Preachers, knowing…Teachers, knowing…Ladies, knowing…Junkies on the corner, knowing: From this point on…” You know the rest.

Big Boi and his crew propose religion as a unilateral solution to the twin problems of suffering and transience. On “Reset,” guest Khujo raps with acid anger about the South’s history of racial oppression, thinking about slavery, Jim Crow, and modern incarceration until he wants to “Wrap [his] hands around the esophagus of them crackers.” He soothes his own anger by remembering Ephesians 6:12, which “said it wasn’t flesh and blood that we wrestle against.” In other words, for Khujo, the true struggle against racism and suffering is spiritual, and laying hands on the tangible flesh of evil will be futile.

Nor will his general anger do any good. As the Wanderer says: “The weary cannot control fate, / Nor do bitter thoughts settle things” (ll. 15-16). Later in “Reset,” Cee-Lo Green refuses to participate in blood feuds on the streets, proposing instead to bring “God to a gunfight.” Like the Wanderer, these ATLiens have been wronged, but seek to end the cycles of violence and suffering which bereaved them. They believe they can accomplish this by orienting themselves toward an eternal good.

With “Last Call,” the album ends in the club. Even though Big Boi has spent the meat of the album demonstrating the vanity of such carousing, the celebration feels sincere. In between flurries of hedonism and suffering, Big Boi orients his life toward his conception of the eternal. One day he will remove his crocodile boots and lay down “deep inside the tomb.” Until then? It only gets rougher.

[1] An Anglo-Saxon elegiac poem, known from a 10th century manuscript.

Forester McClatchey is a senior studying English and art.

DISC 2

by Mark Naida

After the romping exuberance of Big Boi’s “Bowtie” fades, Andre 3000’s “The Love Below” comes crooning in, searching for love.

There is nothing older than this album. Love bursts forth and makes man and man longs for woman and a man named Andre Benjamin falls victim to his desires. His desires to be heard, to be loved – to find something permanent.  These elements entrench “The Love Below” in both despair and longing.

Andre 3000, as an artist, wants to find the cutting edge of interpersonal relationships. His declamation to the listeners of “Hey Ya – Radio Mix / Club Mix” that “Y’all don’t wanna hear me, y’all just wanna dance” displays his immense cynicism toward his art form. With his eccentricities and neuroses, Andre 3000 concerns himself so much with artistic expression that his album bludgeons the listener with his ideas, often repeating lines eight to ten times to force the listener to actually “hear.” The brilliance of “Hey Ya” is found in the likability of the song – one of the most popular of the 2000s seems to be just scraped from the dregs of Andre 3000’s imagination. There is also no regular version of the song – it was crafted for the “Radio,” for the “Club.” It is pure, synthetic, bumping success. If this artistic bicep-flex isn’t enough, Andre places the foundational thought for the album within a song whose likability actually prevents a deep, poetic meditation on the song.

In his optimism, Andre claims boldly in the center of the barnstorming call-and-response of the song:

“Know what they say -its:

Nothing lasts forever!

Then what makes it, then what makes it

Then what makes it, then what makes it

Then what makes love the exception?

So why, oh, why, oh

Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh

Are we still in denial when we know we’re not happy here”

This statement of love’s permanence is directly in conversation with Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx which expresses a poignant fatalism epitomized in his song “Knowing” where he says repeatedly, “from this point it only gets rougher.” Though Big Boi’s love points toward the afterlife, Andre grapples with the idea that earthly love has permanence as well. But why would Andre 3000 be so perturbed by such a common idea, and how does Big Boi not consider the permanence of love? Atlanta hangs over the album as a loveless void. Big Boi and Andre are very much Georgia boys – products of the city. They are products of single mother households, honor culture, and black southern Christianity which has remained focused on deliverance since slaves first learned of Christianity and of salvation. Because of this, Andre’s idea is countercultural for an ATLien. In a recording of his mother’s voice, Andre shows in the song “She’s Alive” the tenuous place of love in his life:

“He always wanted to be a father

But he never took care of you

He ain’t have no money

He ain’t have nothin’

How can you care about somebody

And you never give the welfare of them”

Stylistically, the album flips between eras of romantic art, bastardizing them, as in the opening song “Love Hater,” where he imitates the “Rat Pack” in a disembodied high octave pronouncing that he is a “hater of love.” Andre is in a loveless desert at the opening of the album, preparing to embark on a search for the truth about love. In “God (Interlude)” Andre prays to God, who he says is a girl, saying tenderly, “I just want a sweet bitch.” His projection of womanhood onto his conception of God illuminates the idolatrous nature of his relationship with women. The search for love continues between the divinity of women, to natal love, and to hedonist sexual expression. These disordered ideas of love comprise the majority of the album.  Andre is haunted by flesh while also desiring to get to the heart of things. The focal point of the album is the song “Take Off Your Cool” where he and Norah Jones croon to each other to shed formality and find “The Love Below” which is hidden under culture, art, and pretense. The song’s haunting simplicity, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, is punctuated by Andre’s over-voicing sounding like a gospel choir while two, unfunked “Hey Ya”s ring out, calling toward connection rather than entertainment – the album’s center pointing back to its thesis: love can be permanent.

In sharp contrast, the penultimate song is a dirge about masturbation showing the disordered self-love that is the effect of unsuccessful attempts at connection. Andre says that in the deep of the night, “The Love Below start talkin’ to ya.” He proceeds to show contrition for this form of self-love when he preaches:

“The circumcision has already begun

Desensitizing the very thing or thang that

Brought you into this m—–f—er in the first place.”

The despair continues after “Vibrate.” A computerized voice opens the last track buzzing, “L-O-V-E not found.” The lights fade into the fatalism of Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx. Scenes of violence and hedonism abound, with our hero having accepted that “In those days, ‘Keep it Real’ was the phrase / Silly once said now, but those were the days.” His cynicism bleeds through his lyrics; Andre now understands love’s impermanence when he reminisces about his youth. The scenes of single mothers and cocaine dealers put the sweet, erotic scenes in a brighter light. For Andre, any expression of love, worldly or divine, honest or fake, is better than the loveless void where he has found himself.

Andre’s stirring masterpiece, “A Life in the Day of Andre Benjamin (Incomplete)” tells the origins of the album, speaking in the last verse of his ex-wife, Erykah Badu. Andre admits that, “We’re young, in love, in short, we had fun” while acknowledging that they had a son together. The phrase “In short” haunts the album as a whole because Andre consistently desires love to be permanent; the early optimism of “Hey Ya” rings hollow in the end. The album becomes an elegy –  Andre bargains with his conception of love after Erykah Badu leaves his life. Andre looks back, forward, and within to find that love is actually just so “short.” It is devastating to see his optimism so nearly crushed. But the song is “(incomplete).” Andre maintains some hope, the optimism that someday love, too, will last.

Mark Naida is a sophomore studying French and English.

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