Big Boi Steps into the Spotlight
Sir Lucious Left Foot Puts His Best Foot Forward
How many conversations did you have in 2003 about Polaroids? Did you hear they're going to stop making the film? Did you know that shaking them doesn't actually help the pictures develop? That was the year that OutKast's Andre 3000–helmed hit "Hey Ya!" came out, and such was its discourse-defining power that its commands to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" threatened to overshadow not only the rest of the duo's split-personality double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below but possibly ALL MUSIC EVER MADE. (At one former Stranger editor's birthday house party that year, you could hear the song played a half dozen times in one hour, while the birthday girl danced atop a coffee table despite her just-broken foot.) It was easily the most ringing product endorsement in hiphop since Run-D.M.C.'s Adidas.
The song was also the apex of a dynamic that OutKast had long encouraged: As Andre 3000 increasingly indulged his ATLien eccentricities, Big Boi held it relatively down to earth, riding low in that southernplayalistic Cadillac. While Andre's jodhpurs, genre dabbling, and Cheshire grin grabbed the popular attention, it was easy to overlook the weight of Antwan "Big Boi" Patton's contributions.
Big Boi's long-delayed (and worth the wait) solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, changes all that. In some part, this is thanks to the torturous label wrangling surrounding its release. To get his solo album released to Def Jam from Jive (still the home for both OutKast's next album and Andre 3000's potential solo work), Big Boi had to agree to an album with no vocal appearances from his longtime partner. (Andre appears only as a producer on the icy Yelawolf-featuring track "You Ain't No DJ.") The result has been an opportunity for both longtime fans and "Hey Ya!" come-latelies to hear Big Boi on his own, and to reconsider his role in OutKast. Andre may be the flashy, high-spired architecture, but Big Boi's been providing much-needed bedrock all along.
Fittingly for a 15-year-plus veteran, Big Boi handles his solo spotlight with easy authority, good humor, and zero fuss. (If he's pissed about label jive or missing OutKast's other half, he doesn't let it darken his tracks or slow his busted-water-main flow.) The subject matter will be familiar to students of OutKast or just hiphop in general: Big Boi raps about his prowess as a rapper, his superhuman abilities as a lover, and the extreme inadvisability of challenging him in these or other areas of his expertise. As always, his rhymes are distinctly situated in the South, and they're as often as not tinted with a thick haze of sticky-weed smoke. This is well-trod ground, but the joy is in Big Boi's deft, double-time-capable cadences, his pop-and-lock wordplay, and his inimitably cool delivery.
And, of course, it all sounds like Big Boi. The electro-funk is pillowy soft but with plenty deep bass (and featuring no less than George Clinton); the Sleepy Brown soul hooks are smooth and sweet; the hiphop boom bap cuts through the most delirious clutters of sonic color. There are no acoustic-guitar jangling folk-pop numbers, no clumsy gestures toward new wave or synth pop, and only one typically terrible rap/rock flirtation—the hook of "Follow Us," sung by mewling rock outfit Vonnegutt. There is at least one truly inspired variation, as "General Patton" rides in on a perfectly bombastic opera sample (from Verdi's Aida).
Absent Andre, Big Boi surrounds himself with some fine collaborators. No one upstages Big Boi, but he doesn't make a big deal out of it. Janelle Monáe sings a swooning hook on "Be Still" (returning the favor of Big Boi's appearance on her single "Tightrope" and providing the one degree of separation between OutKast and Of Montreal). Big Rube gives a gut-rumbling, mythmaking spoken-word outro on "General Patton." Best of all, though, is the Gucci Mane–featuring "Shine Blockas" and its remix, which adds Houston rappers Bun B of UGK and Three 6 Mafia affiliate Project Pat (as Bun B puts it, "Like it's two different packs of Kool-Aid up in the same jug/And I'm still the same thug"). The track's sample of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "I Miss You" sounds like an AM radio evaporating on E (and makes you want to cue up "Int'l Players Anthem"), Gucci's chorus is mush-mouthed and celebratory, and every verse bursts with grin-inducing couplets.
It's all almost enough to make you forget about the Polaroids and stop holding your breath for another OutKast album to develop. Almost.