Outkast‘s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a magnificent if somewhat noodly double-header from Messrs Benjamin and Patton, delightful in its magpie range of samples and styles, and despite consisting of two seperate albums largely recorded in different studios at different times, it told you more about what Andre 3000 and Big Boi had in common than the forces that were pushing them apart. They even got to act out their differences on the video to the hilarious Roses.
Idlewild follows the same pattern. Despite being the soundtrack to their forthcoming film, and despite few signs that they actually enjoy each other’s company any more than they did back in 2003, it hangs together wonderfully well as a collection of forays into the treasure trove of black musical history. The film’s Jazz Age setting allows them to pilfer and update countless jazz and blues styles, from the Cab Calloway opening ‘Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi’ Minnie the Moocher holler on Mighty O onwards. Tinny electronic hooks are counterpointed by Patton’s sweet soul vocals on Peaches and N2U, while Benjamin’s Idlewild Blue and Dyin’ To Live offer ethereal twists on traditional blues.
It seems like the film got made in a rush of enthusiasm following Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s universal, Grammy-snaffling acclaim, and has been waiting around for a couple of year while the gentlemen finesse their soundtrack contributions. There’s no sense of pastiche about the wide range of styles on display. 80s drum lines and drifting synthesisers join Cotton Club horns and thrumming R&B riffs in what should be a terrible mish-mash but somehow comes out sounding sweet and sharp. Finesse is the operative word – there’s no lazy rhyming or flabby production on Idlewild, whether on a short musical interlude or an intricate rap like Hollywood Divorce.
Many of the numbers, like the first single, Morris Brown, have a kind of musical sheen to them that you find on great disco productions, a full but intriguing sound made up of countless strands weaving together everything from marching bands to people hitting saucepans and dogs barking. At first the number sounds out of kilter, rhythms shifting, falling out, until the larger pattern is perceived – pages could be devoted to dissecting just that track.
Being OutKast, there’s a lot of music for your money (25 tracks), and a lot of standout moments – the jangly strings and smooth brass lines that alternate on The Train, Janelle Monáe‘s delicious showtune vocals on Call The Law, Hollywood Divorce’s sharp wordplay. The good stuff keeps coming and coming. And to end it all there’s A Bad Note, where a doom-laden piano circles round and round while a wild guitar wails somewhere in the background.
There are only a small number of collaborations; in essence Benjamin and Patton have gone their different ways once more and pursued their own musical obsessions, like two designers producing clothes under the same umbrella label. The OutKast stamp’s all over it, but there are so many, and so diverse influences at play that your brain has to jump to keep up. Sometimes you want easy music that washes over you and doesn’t cause a fuss. With Idlewild you get a sumptuous surface that constantly excites, but reveals its secret charms with repeated listenings.