Outkast:: Idlewild (Album Review)
If, as Public Enemy frontman Chuck D once claimed, hip-hop is black America’s answer to CNN, then the hip-hop skit – those interminable sketches that pepper every rap album – may well be black America’s answer to the BBC1 sitcom My Hero: you never meet anyone who thinks they’re funny, but for some reason, new ones keep getting made. But if the skit that opens OutKast’s sixth album is unlikely to leave the listener requiring medical attention for injuries sustained while rolling in the aisles, it at least seems to be making a point about Hollywood snobbery.
The skit’s protagonist is a fruity-voiced black actor, protesting that rappers “who get into acting are disrespecting the craft – they’re taking jobs from us trained actors”. This is not so far from Samuel L Jackson explaining why he turned down a role in 50 Cent’s biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’: “Hollywood people tend to think that because one is successful in one area of entertainment, they can bring them into this particular world.” Admittedly, no one told Samuel L Jackson to “act like he got some sense up in his bitch” as happens here, but it’s hard not to draw a parallel.
It doesn’t end there. Although much of this album consists of songs from Outkast’s forthcoming movie musical, Idlewild, awkwardly interpolated between them are non-soundtrack numbers that focus on Hollywood itself. “Things have changed, the cast is Hollywood,” complains Life Is Like a Musical. “Don’t let them change us.” The mournful Hollywood Divorce flatly accuses the film industry of racism: “All the fresh styles always start out as a hood thing … by the time it reaches Hollywood, it’s over … take our game, take our name, then they kick us to the kerb.” Outkast have never made things easy for themselves – Andre “3000” Benjamin’s defiant dandyism spawned a rumour that he was gay, a career-killer in the notoriously homophobic world of hip-hop – but this represents a whole new strain of bloody-mindedness: simultaneously trailing your debut feature film and attacking the institution that allowed you to make a feature film in the first place.
Intriguingly, both tracks are solo efforts by Benjamin. It’s a moot point whether his concern about Tinseltown racism and snobbery is founded in his own painful attempts to start an acting career: simply watching Guy Ritchie’s Revolver is enough to instil a profound loathing for the entire movie industry, so imagine how Benjamin must have felt after taking a supporting role in the film. But either way, it certainly makes for peculiar listening.
A more pressing question is why the songs from the soundtrack seem such hard work. The movie is set in the 1930s, and the music understandably follows suit. It is OutKast’s misfortune to become fixated on updating swing-era jazz at precisely the same point that everyone, with the possible exception of Michael Parkinson, has become heartily sick of the idea of updating swing-era jazz, stupefied by toothsome young men doo-be-dooing their way through Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees, unable to face another unprovoked assault on the Great American Songbook by Robbie Williams or Rod Stewart. It doesn’t matter how dextrously the duo do the updating – and while you’d never confuse anything here with the oeuvre of Jamie Cullum, there’s certainly nothing as exotic or intriguing as the similarly minded Bowtie from Idlewild’s multi-platinum predecessor, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The mere sound of another big band parping into life is enough to leave the listener feeling like a foie gras goose: shove much more of this stuff down my throat and I’m going to burst.
If that was all that was on offer, we would be in deep trouble, but when Idlewild the album shifts away from Idlewild the movie, it soars. Forthcoming single Morris Brown is spectacular. A rare collaboration between OutKast’s two members – Benjamin provides the music, partner Antwan “Big Boi” Patton the rap – it features a clattering rhythm, a glorious chorus rooted in 60s sunshine pop and the unexpected appearance of a marching band. Famed for his catholic music tastes, Benjamin’s non-soundtrack contributions are suitably off-the-wall. Life Is Like a Musical features a kind of distorted electronic muzak; the impossibly doomy eight-minute closer A Bad Note has its roots in Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain; and on Hollywood Divorce, Benjamin manages to corral Lil’ Wayne, one of the New Orleans rappers who coined the phrase “bling bling”, into basically apologising for doing so. But Patton’s efforts are often equally striking. The Train retells OutKast’s story to a backing of horns and psychedelic effects, while Mutron Angel sounds like a gospel-infused soul ballad that has had every last trace of joy surgically extracted.
Idlewild bulges with brilliant ideas, but its biggest idea seems oddly underwhelming and over-familiar: thus an album half the length of its predecessor contrives to sound more rambling and undisciplined. Ambitious but flawed, at turns stunning, maddening and confusing, Idlewild is a curate’s egg – but the good parts are implausibly delicious. (Alex Petridis-UK)