Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sir Lucious Beatdown

On Tuesday, Atlanta rapper Big Boi released his solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. To mark the occasion, Rockaliser combines its Critical Beatdown and track-by-track features to take a close look at the album.

1. Feel Me (Intro)
AM: "Damn, that wasn't nothing but the intro," intones Big Boi, half of sorely missed rap duo OutKast, at the end of Sir Lucious Left Foot's opener. As hip-hop intros go, this one has the feel of a classic, a dense, heavy funk cut with no rapping, but plenty of talkbox. 4.5/5

NS: Definitely one of the best rap intros I've heard in years (faint praise, that), and one of the few I can think of that actually seems too short upon first listen. Though this catchy banger seems to have its roots in the oversaturated piano riffs of the 1990s (think Dr. Dre), it pitches a consistent vibe, complementing an album full of similarly epic productions. The whistling is a perfect touch, giving this track a bit of a Morricone vibe, never a bad thing. 3.5/5

2. Daddy Fat Sax
AM: Buzzing with a wonderful clarity, "Daddy Fat Sax" is musically very busy, but nicely mixed, allowing each of its many constituent parts room to breathe. I could devote a post to the lovely details that producer Mr. DJ, a longtime OutKast cohort, throws in, but I'll limit myself the thumps and scratches that open the track, and the brief hush at the beginning of the third verse. And the rapping? Peerless--Big is one of the greats. 5/5

NS: The first of what will be many exemplary album tracks (did I call it, or what?), "Daddy Fat Sax" is close to becoming my new theme song. With nary a pause for breath, Big matches the booming, boisterous musical accompaniment phrase-for-phrase, literally leaping over his next set of words, spitting ideas of uncertain length at dazzling speed. I don't know how any sane person could ever be bored of this song, especially the way the beat bounces back at 1:49. 4.5/5

3. Turns Me On feat. Sleepy Brown & Joi
AM: Sleepy Brown joins serene keyboards and some slightly more forceful percussion for what can only be called a sex jam. Big Boi exudes a calm confidence, sidestepping the crassness of most such jams. Are the vocals slightly sped up, McCartney-style? 4.5/5

NS: Big takes a turn for the Outkastian--augmented as he often is by singing cohort Sleepy Brown--his helium-soaked verses an ideal match for this slightly more minimal (but still groovy) number. There's something even jazzy about those tinkling keyboards, and it works surprising wonders with the clipped sound of the bass and drums. Clearly, Big Boi is not even close to running out of ideas just yet. Music like this, there's no other word but just freaky. 4.5/5

4. Follow Us feat. Vonnegutt
No idea where Big Boi found Vonnegutt, who don't even have a Wikipedia page and write songs with titles like "Ex-Girlfriends Are Stupid." Singer Neil Garrard's contributions can't reasonably be described as a success, but the track never grates. Big Boi's presence on "Follow Us" isn't as large, and it's to the song's detriment. Salaam Remi is the fourth producer in four songs, but his approach--carefully programmed funk, in the case slightly more spastic--fits in well. 3.5/5

NS: Even more minimal, in a way--that is, until those synths start slinking through, locating a melody where there once seemed to be nothing more than a solitary guitar chord and Big's exemplary intro. Those are all pluses, but there's a big minus in the form of guest artists Vonnegutt (as if their name weren't already a cue to stay away), particularly their singer, who croons in a very affected way, very redolent of mainstream emo music, which I find obnoxious. Too bad they didn't replace him with Sleepy Brown. 3.5/5

5. Shutterbugg feat. Cutty
AM: I was as surprised as everyone else to discover that this is a Scott Storch production, because "Shutterbugg"--funky, futuristic, slightly goofy--sounds like the noises I imagine Big Boi hears inside his head (this song, like most of the album, is co-produced by Big Boi). The hook sounds like a fat guy beatboxing into a talkbox, and the lasers and terse guitars emanate from some laboratory-nightclub hybrid. You may have noticed I'm not devoting much space to Big Boi's raps--there's only a finite number of adjectives that express that something's really good--but here, as before, his agility and charm win out. 4.5/5

NS: If you had told me a couple years ago that Big Boi would singlehandedly revive the vocoder, and would use it in a way that would shame all previous practitioners of autotune, I wouldn't believe you. Yet here we are. With producer Scott Storch demonstrating an unexpected facility for evoking Tron-like soundscapes, "Shutterbugg" is a deviously staccato statement of form, a single that sounds like it's in the midst of currently loading, an artifact of hip-hop digitalism where the pieces can still be recognized and analyzed--let's just say there's a lot going on here. And that guitar part is so wonderful, and Cutty's brief bridge is so easy on the ears, and...I'm still not done describing what makes "Shutterbugg" great, but it's all connected. 5/5

6. General Patton
AM: Big Boi is shouting as much as he's rapping here, not his finest form, crowing about himself and the South. The beat is more forceful than anything we've heard previously, but the horns bludgeon more than they punctuate. It does sound like he's standing in front of a gigantic American flag, I guess. Bonus points, however, for the skit that follows "Patton," which is amusing and, more startlingly, might acknowledge the possibility of non-heterosexual sex. 3.5/5

NS: Along similar lines, I never expected Big Boi could craft such a number of devastating verses while accompanied by a sample of a Verdi opera. Epic choral chants have just as much a tendency to grate in hip-hop as they do in rock songs, but the horn samples add an additional spryness, and good lord is Big Boi on point. He's great at using traditional phrasing and rhyming in hip-hop without sounding, well, like he's rapping--it sounds more like a guy calling you out for your bullshit in the most devastating possible manner. The listener is likely to be exhausted by the speed and force of Big's rhymes--imagine how much work he put into spitting them. 4/5

7. Tangerine feat. T.I. & Khujo Goodie
AM: This is the sort of music that strikes me, a non-musician, as minor key. Not sure if that's the case, but the gray tones here are disquieting. The lyrics don't suit the surroundings at all (T.I., at one point, announces "dick game glorious," and he means what you think he means), although I'm impressed by Big Boi's Greg Louganis bit, and heartened by Tip's repping of old school Kast. 4/5

NS: Treads similar territory as "Turns Me On," but with a tribal tom-tom beat that, of course, many would probably associated with Timbaland. Whether or not that's deserved, I don't know, but it's definitely a south thing, and if the beat didn't clue you in, T.I.'s presence certainly will. The recently sprung Mr. Tip offers a verse that seems to be about witnessing an orgy in a car that happens to be banging Southernplayalisticadillacmusik, I think. One of Sir Lucious Left Foot's more depraved, lascivious numbesr, but "Tangerine" is still overloaded with charm and, uh, relistenability. 3.5/5

8. You Ain't No DJ feat. Yelawolf
AM: Let's pause for a second to lament the absence of Andre 3000, Big Boi's partner in OutKast, and a brilliant MC. Disturbing decisions from on high at Jive Records kept two collaborations ("Royal Flush," which also features Raekwon, and "Lookin' 4 Ya," both excellent) off Sir Lucious Left Foot. Andre's present only as the producer of "You Ain't No DJ." His work artfully arranges the sound it makes when you fire phasers inside of Coke bottles, and the production is so insistent and bizarre that it's hard to notice the MCs. Newcomer Yelawolf arrives from the Busta Rhymes-Busdriver school of rapping, without the talent or manic energy of either. Finally, let's pause to lament the presence of the remaining skits, which are appended, annoyingly, to the end of this track and others, Aquemini-style. 3.5/5

NS: Andre 3000's production here is his sole contribution to the album in full--Jive Records, who are now perennially on my shit list, wouldn't allow any track featuring Dre's vocals, so Big Boi leaked them anyway. "You Ain't No DJ" isn't even close to one of his best productions, and while it starts off interestingly enough, it does end up sounding more repetitive and random than any of the previous seven songs. Also, Yelawolf offers what is perhaps the worst verse on the entire album--I get if he wants to deliberately ignore the beat, but conceding that, his lines just aren't impressive on their own. 3/5

9. Hustle Blood feat. Jamie Foxx
AM: Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son Of Chico Dusty missteps with "Hustle Blood," a disjointed tale of familial difficulties. There's nothing egregious going on, but the song feels lifeless, a surprise considering Lil Jon produced it. It's better than "Shots" but worse than "Blame It." 2/5

NS: A severe misstep. Markedly more unimaginative, plodding and lugubrious than anything that came before it, "Hustle Blood" only highlights the incredible heights that could have been achieved if this track had been replaced by, say, "Royal Flush." The only reason I even give it 2 stars is that Big Boi gets in a few good lines and we are mercifully spared any Ray Charles impression. 2/5

10. Be Still feat. Janelle Monáe
AM: "Be Still" would fit on Monáe's recent The ArchAndroid, although it doesn't feature the singer at her most exciting. Somewhat slow--none of the album's last 7 songs are particularly uptempo--the song sounds faintly mournful, though the production and performances are vibrant. 4/5

NS: Similarly, "Be Still" starts out as a plodding piano/synth number, and never really picks up steam. It never proves to be worthy of Monáe, but (as I think I've adequately proved) she's good at basically everything she does, and there's something about her clear, unaffected performance that causes people like me to overuse the adjective "lovely." Otherwise, there isn't much of a melody here, nor does Big Boi spit with the particular verve that characterizes the album elsewhere. 2.5/5

11. Fo Yo Sorrows feat. George Clinton, Too $hort, & Sam Chris
AM: An extremely stoned cousin to "Shutterbugg," with a hint of "You Ain't No DJ," and debts to OutKast's George Clinton collaboration, "Synthesizer." Big Boi owns this song, but the guests are all great: Clinton does his bullfrog prophet thing, Sam Chris sounds like he's holding in a hit as his sings the spooky chorus, and Too $hort stops by, drops four killer lines, and takes off. 4.5/5

NS: I'll always have a large space in my heart for the great hip-hop blunt-roll anthems of the past, but "Fo Yo Sorrows" may just be the genre's greatest dissertation on the subject, a full-throttle inquiry into the mind of a weedhead that proves rap and psychedelia were never that far apart, especially when George Clinton is on tap. Everyone here is on point: Clinton's intro is awesome (and he turns the line "don't need no girlfriend, just need my dope" into an anthem of conscience), Too $hort's cameo is appropriate and well-timed, and Big provides one of those great half-spaced raps, which are quick and agile enough to make me wonder what he's smoking. 5/5

12. Night Night feat. B.o.B. & Joi
AM: "Night Night" often sounds like it's building towards triumphalism but avoids ever getting there. Big Boi swims laps around the fluid beat. The guests are relegated to hook duties, which they handle well, without getting in their host's way. 4/5

NS: Love the skit at the beginning. Otherwise, "Night Night" has some charming guitar lines and backup vocals, and there's a sense of triumphal kitchen sink-ism that oustrips "Daddy Fat Sax" for sheer crazy parts. Not all of it works, and I'm sort of sad B.o.B. didn't a verse of his own, as his shtick would fit well within the timbre of this track. When Big Boi says "here comes something new," it's sad to note that this is one of the few tracks where this is not the case. 3/5

13. Shine Blockas feat. Gucci Mane
AM: On "Shine Blockas," DJ Cutmaster Swift takes an old Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes tune, cuts and speeds it up, lays on some keyboard, and walks away with a track of undeniable radiance. Against this exultant backdrop, Big and Gucci--the former darting around, the latter hopping lazily, both supremely assured--drop some many-times-told rhymes about haters. But with their clever new term and beautiful production, the rappers invite the listener in on the shine. 5/5

NS: I've waxed rhapsodic about this song too many times already, and it only gets better with age. To make it quick: "Shine Blockas" is one of the most truly, endlessly revelatory tracks I have ever heard, in hip-hop or elsewhere. Big Boi has always been quick, but here he's rapping on air, his words and cadences possessed by something greater than mere convenience or subject matter. Gucci is the perfect counterpoint: mealy-mouthed, inexpressive, and yet he somehow turns all that into an advantage. I love the way the production changes to subtly reflect Big's intonations, breaking apart, stopping on a dime, constantly mutating, always buoying the man in front. If I could give this track 5.5 stars, I would. 5/5

14. The Train Pt. 2 (Sir Luscious Left Foot Saves The Day) feat. Sam Chris
AM: Apparent sequel to an Idlewild cut, Part 2 bears no particular resemblance to the first installment. I hear echoes of ATLiens in the unhurried "Train." In '96, when that album came out, Dré was still writing Big Boi's lyrics; 14 years later, no one would question his wordplay. I enjoy the laid-back bounce, but I think this album is missing an uptempo monster, in the style of "GhettoMusick." It's worth noting that, at about 4:40, this is the longest song on an album of compact jams. 4/5

NS: Don't know why the guy who sings the hook on this doesn't get credit, but never mind that. It's a great vocal performance, whoever it is, pushing a long string of philosophical arguments that are more thoughtful than anything you are likely to hear on a hip-hop album this year. Big Boi is similarly ruminative, encapsulating and expanding on a lot of themes in a manner characteristic of great album enders. There's something dark and lonely about "The Train Pt. II," but it's also a beautiful finish, and I love the instrumental outro to the point where I could listen to that on a repeating loop. 5/5

15. Back Up Plan
AM: Left Foot has far more scratching than most hip-hop these days, and Cutmaster Swift does his thing throughout "Back Up Plan," an intricate Organized Noise production. The rubbery guitar nicely accents the beat, and the whole thing sounds pretty bumping, even out of my pauper's speakers. Tons of internal rhymes in this one. They'd leave a lesser rapper tongue-tied, but Big Boi sails through. The sign-off is a nice touch, perhaps a sign that the exhausting process of actually releasing Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son Of Chico Dusty wore out even the irrepressible Big Boi. 4/5

NS: "Back Up Plan" is good, yet another classic in a way, and the only problem I really have with it is that it seems like an odd closer, especially considering how perfect "The Train Pt. II" would have been in its stead. With that out of the way, "Back Up Plan" closes out the album with yet another litany of hooks, and if nothing else Big Boi doesn't even sound close to tired. Outkast often proves that things that often sound hoary in other contexts--cheerleader chants, for instance--can find new life when found in unexpected circumstances. 4/5

Computing the average track score is not an accurate way to gauge a critic's opinion of an album, but it is easily done. For the curious: Aaron's was 4.03 per track, and Nathan's was 3.87


  1. Shows what I know--I thought T.I. was saying "Dick vainglorious" (or, on top of that, "dick vein glorious," by someone's standards probably an entendre of sorts).

    And yes, my estimation of this album is a lot higher than the averages suggest.

  2. On the lyric sheet it reads "d**k game glorious," so I'll stand by what I wrote.

    Even if the lyric had been "dick vein glorious," I think I'd still prefer the Ghostface lyric "dick on the cover/now count, how many veins on it." I've always been curious what magazine he thought would publish that.

  3. that lyric, btw, from the insanely quotable "nutmeg"