Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Years (and Six Verses) in the Life of Benjamin Andre

Let's take it back to '03. Still reeling from that whole 9/11 predicament, our country was finding ever newer and more fractious ways of wasting time. Based on pretenses that once seemed reasonable, the US began its occupation of Iraq. Scientists finished completely mapping the human genome. Peter Jackson finished the third installment of a fantasy series that collectively was only a few hours shy, length-wise, of The Cure For Insomnia. And, for a while, the best-selling album in America was an album marketed as an Outkast release. In reality, it was two solo albums sold together, each generating multiple hit singles that satisfied consumers and critics alike. It was called Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and it was the album that got my tenth-grade guitar-head into rap.

Many arguments persist about which solo disc was better: generally, the fans of Outkast's more traditional southern-fried gangsta sound preferred Big Boi's Speakerboxx, while a more esoteric group of Prince fans, soccer moms, emo kids and vegetarians preferred The Love Below. I happen to like both albums just fine, and I acknowledge that there is a fair amount of filler on each, but I must give the edge to Three Stacks in this case. Dre's first single was a loopy pop number, with no rapping, played in 10/4 time. It also made a legitimate claim to being possibly the greatest song ever written. The rest of the album, though not as good, is deft and entertaining, and more importantly diverse: he was doing things with jazz, musical numbers, singer/songwriter material, and whatever else, all previously unseen in hip-hop.

One thing Andre didn't do much on that album, however, was rap. This led some to believe that his emcee abilities were lagging behind his partner's. This perception was reinforced after the release of the soundtrack to Idlewild, which was unfairly savaged as a poor followup to Speakerboxx/The Love Below that went further in capitalizing on Andre's mounting interest in classic blues, jazz and ragtime. Too bad, because Idlewild has a number of classic tracks on it (and the movie, by the way, is in its way far more watchable than Purple Rain). There were cries that Outkast had gone from being respectable elders of the rap community to outsized, self-important artistes, and a fair amount of the criticism seemed to stem from the fact that there wasn't enough rapping.

Now we are approaching the end of the decade, and Outkast has yet to release another album. The plan has been to release two more solo albums independently before moving on to the next proper Outkast release, but Big Boi's Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty has been in the works for at least two years and still has yet to be released (which is a shame: the tracks that have leaked so far have suggested that this album may well end up a masterpiece, easily besting almost anything on Speakerboxx). What is Andre to do in his spare time?

The short answer is that he has been completely blowing away the competition on other artists' tracks. Since 2006, there has been perhaps no rapper who has proven such severe lyrical dominance without releasing a single album of solo track. Mr. 3000 has done the impossible by establishing himself as the emcee to beat in a profession that tends to discard its elders quickly. For your benefit, I thought I would provide a list of guest verses Andre 3000 has done, accompanied by some comments.

UGK, "Int'l Players Anthem." This is probably the most high-profile release that Dre has yet guested on, and it also may be the track with the stiffest competition: his partner Big Boi is present, as are Bun B and the late Pimp C. I've written about how much I like this track before, but one thing I didn't mention is how successful the rappers are at carving out their own, minute-long niches. In reverse-order, Big Boi indulges his surreal side over a stripped-down bass and drum groove, the sound of a cash register, and some 'Kastian slowed vocals; Bun B offers his own characteristic paean to settle down with a girl over the manic repetition of synth handclaps; Pimp C describes some of the more lucrative aspects of the pimping game as the drum beat kicks in. And yet none of them can top the moment when Dre begins "So..." and the Willie Hutch sample kicks in, sans drums. I'm not a rapper, so I'm not really aware of how difficult it would be to rap without a beat, but Andre's tone and delivery strike me even more with the limited accompaniment. "Int'l Players Anthem" is a song about marriage, of course, specifically Andre 3000's impending nuptials, and simply the ability to talk interestingly about an institution without resorting to gloss and sentiment is a revelatory act in itself. He projects a humorous tone of humility about his predicament ("I'm no island/peninsula maybe") and explains in lucid terms why marriage can be a serious and important thing, even to self-described "players" ("I'd hate to see you frown but I'd rather see her smiling") and ends on a note rarely addressed in music, literature or film: as "spaceships don't come equipped with rearview mirrors" so does the marriage ceremony seem set up to foreshadow eventual heartbreak. Armed with this knowledge, Andre imagines himself in the company of friends, supporting his decision but telling him, "keep your heart, Three Stacks, keep your heart/Damn, these girls are smart, Three Stacks, these girls are smart. Play your your part." In a little over a minute, Dre spits at least four or five phrases that are deeply intelligent, original and well-written. It's not just great rapping, it's a great essay on love, commitment and fidelity.

Big Boi, "Royal Flush." This was one of the earliest leaked tracks off Luscious Left Foot, and one of the most refreshingly minimal. With Big Boi taking the lead this time and Raekwon following, one would think that the anxiety of influence generated by the "Skew It On The Bar-B" team would be unbearable. And yet once again Dre finds a way to turn the song on its head. It should be added that Big Boi and Raekwon's verses are also really, really good: Big shares his thoughts on American foreign policy and suggest relocating to Atlantis, while Rae, understated as always, returns to the familiar subject of crack dealing. But 3000 proves to be on a whole different level, and it's obvious that his partners understood that, because his verse gets more running time than the previous two combined. He takes time warming up, offering a series of blank portraits ("As a king standing on his terrace/while his partner shooting up at the rifleman") before offering advice to "Live life like there is no tomorrow/and if one come then that's the motto." It's one of those verses where the rapper keeps topping himself in terms of memorable catchphrases, reaching an almost feverish level of ingenuity. Dre drops lines both amusing ("Crack and I have a lot in common/we both came up in the 80s and we keep the base pumpin'") and devastating ("I thought the name of the game was to have a better life/I guess it ain't, what a shame"), and he ably diagnoses the fractured career aspirations of many young black Americans ("Dare make an honest living or make a crooked killing/Or do a bit of both until you're holding on a million?"). The track ends flippantly: "you do the hokie-pokie and you turn your life around." Throughout it all, Dre's voice remains calm and collected, almost journalistic, refusing to romanticize those who choose lives of crime or those who choose otherwise.

John Legend, "Green Light." This is one of those songs that begs multiple interpretations. On the surface, it seems to be about John Legend at a party, imploring some woman to give him the "green light" to take her home. Another scenario, strongly suggested by this video, can alternately be conjectured. That is, that Andre 3000 is giving John Legend the "green light" to temporarily relinquish his role as a smooth-piano cheese merchant and attempt something a bit more unorthodox and cool. In fact, the whole tenor of the video (which I strongly suggest you watch) is that Legend is a complete milquetoast until he borrows some of Dre's credibility. Further research corroborates my interpretation: Andre 3000 was quoted as saying, "This is going to be a surprise for a lot of John Legend fans, because it is a lot more upbeat than John is [...] this is a cool John Legend song." And, at the end of "Green Light," you can hear Three Stacks commenting that "sometimes you got to step out from behind the piano. Even Stevie Wonder got down sometimes" (question: when?). I do agree with Andre that this is high-quality music. Legend's boring lounge-croon is still a factor, but the spacy keyboard arrangements are really catchy and the beat (as De La Soul would say) is slammin'. Legend sings the verses and chorus, but Dre gets the opportunity to sing a bridge or two, and I was reminded of how much I like Andre 3000 as a singer, despite his lack of technical prowess in that department. Taken together, the song is pure sugar-pop euphoria, and Dre's brief verse at the end contributes to the track's sense of ease and well-being. In this instance, the subject of the verse closely mirrors that of the song. He describes encountering resistance upon asking to take a woman home: "What kind of a girl do you think that I are?/The kind that you meet in a bar?/You think you can get whatever you want 'cause you're some kind of star?" To which the answer is, "No, I'm a comet." 3000's demeanor breeches new levels of good-natured flirting, perhaps reaching its zenith in the line "I hope you're more like Anita Baker than Robin Givens." My only problem with the track is that Legend starts singing again as Dre is finishing up, so it's difficult to hear his denouement. Still, it's hard to listen to this and not be smiling.

DJ Drama, "The Art of Storytellin' Part 4." Similar to previous installments of "The Art of Storytellin'," this track is basically the two members of Outkast pontificating on social issues of the day. Chris Rock once said, in praising Lauryn Hill, that "people don't have a problem with conscious rap; they have a problem with conscious beats," a comment that made me reflect on Outkast's role as rap group that, uniquely, manages to write commercially-successful music with a conscience. In interviews, Dre has made comments to the effect that Outkast's music reflects a diversity that is equal parts party, gangsta, and conscious rap, and that it was important to him that one area wasn't disproportionately represented (indeed, one of the reasons that "B.O.B" remains as good as it is is because Outkast managed to mix and match such elements, sometimes in the span of a few sentences). I like this song a lot because it begins with Andre offering a critique of "Make It Rain" culture, to which he argues thusly (this deserves to be quoted at length):
I'm like why? The world needs sun
The hood needs funds, there's a war going on
And half the battle is guns
How dare I throw it on the floor, when people are poor?
So I write like Edgar Allan to restore, got a cord?
Umbilical attached to a place they can't afford.
Obviously, a lot of the value here is in the delivery, especially the way Andre enunciates "the world needs sun, the hood needs funds," etc. The whole thing, however, is just as vivid on paper, a brilliant example of narrative-derived rap. Drawing the line between rap star decadence, urban poverty, and American war culture? That would be something most rappers would only be able to do in twice as many lines. With Andre, it's just the beginning. The rest of the track follows this route, with Andre even offering a mild rebuke of his own behavior, as the disconnect between the life he currently lives and the people he left behind grows in metaphoric intensity. The rest of the track, I hate to say, is kind of a letdown.

Fonzworth Bentley, "Everybody." This is by far the worst tune that Andre has been associated with in recent years. You may remember Fonzworth as one of the more high-profile gofers in the rap community; he also made a memorable appearance in the video for "The Way You Move." Unfortunately, I don't think anyone was saving their best beats for Puff Daddy's personal valet, who also happens to be a very bad rapper. Kanye West features, oddly, not providing a verse but rather singing the hook, which everyone knows by now is a bad idea. Andre is more of a welcome relief here than a lyrical force, but there are a few good moments, most revolving around whatever "shorty" Fonzworth was directed crude and unimaginative innuendos toward earlier. I like the space after the line "Your granny must be Navajo," for instance. Still, this is a weak track in most senses.

Devin The Dude, "What a Job." This track, which also features Snoop Dogg, is perhaps too smooth for its own good. Or at least it would require quite a collection of emcees to make up for the limp musical arrangement. Which it definitely has. In fact, Snoop may have contributed better material than Andre. There is a very "Outkast" sounding moment, I'm not sure how to explain it, when a chorus starts straight out of "Ms. Jackson" provides accompaniment. The best thing about the song as a whole is its subject matter: the "job" in the title refers to the rapping profession, and messrs. Dogg, Dude and 3000 have plenty of reasons for liking their profession. The most commonly mentioned is how much weed they get to smoke. Andre, on the other hand, talks about spending all night working on lyrics, brainstorming ideas, and dealing with a culture that likes to illegally procure his hard work. But the best lines are below:
See, we do it for the boy that graduated
That looked you in your eyes real tough and said 'preciate it
And that he wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for your CD number 9
And he's standing with his baby momma Kiki and she's crying,
Talking about, that they used to get high to me in high school
And they used to make love to me in college
Then they told me about their first date, listenin' to my tunes
And he liked her fingernail polish
I say, hate to cut you off but I gotta go
I wish you could tell me mo' but I'm off to the studio
Gotta write tonight
Hey, can you put us in your raps? I don't see why not.
Andre goes from railing against supporters of file-sharing (a well-worn subject) to offering a symbolic compromise: the people to whom the music mattered most are honored by the artist himself, who considers them the primary reason for why his job gives him so much pleasure. It's heartening to see that as a reason, in addition to the normally-stated copious weed, money, hos, etc. Sentiments like this can be expressed badly (we can all think about terrible songs about "doing it for the fans") but Andre succeeds because he keeps things specific.

Speaking personally, if someone were to come up to me and state that he or she "got high to me in high school," I would view that as just about the most moving and life-affirming thing anyone could possibly say. I think.


  1. This is my new favorite site to check. Keep up the good work.

    Nathan, I've been trying on-and-off for a while now to find "All Thermal Fronts Read Cold." I used to have it. Any chance you could send it to me?

  2. Benefit received, as I have failed to keep up with any of this, or even the Aaron-championed "Idlewild."

  3. I neglected to mention that Andre has also appeared on several remixes, including "Throw Some Ds" by Rich Boy, "30 Something" by Jay-Z, Unk's "Walk It Out," "You" by Lloyd, and "Billy Blaze" by the Infamous. I also gather that he writes and performs most of the music for the Cartoon Network show "Class of 3000," but only Andre completists will find anything of value there.

    Excuse me while I go back to listening to the awesome "Shine Blockas" by Big Boi Feat. Gucci.

  4. After the awesomeness of "Shine Blockas" I was thinking about posting a plea to let "SLLF:TSoCD" see the light of day.

    Dre's verse on Int'l Players Anthem--what can you even say? That wordplay is next level. The transition to Pimp C's verse is pretty fun too.

    Never liked "Green Light" tho.