There once was a time everybody was sure they understood the dynamic behind the duo Outkast: Andre 3000 was the free spirit, driven by the will to experiment, while Big Boi was his anchor, the one who made sure Dre’s thought bubbles wouldn’t drift too far from reality. They themselves named the roles they’d cast for each other “the player” and “the poet,” and on their classic Aquemini they told us how well this interplay worked. That’s an eternity ago by now though, and even though both of them are still active as musicians their roles aren’t that evenly divided anymore.
Andre 3000 still is a great rapper, his flow and pen are sharp as ever, and with the reputation he has acquired he can permit himself to jump on any track he deems fit. Which is exactly what he does, but in recent years, those tracks are, with a few exceptions, predominantly cheerful bubblegum tunes by artists with an ear for pop hits. He’s been nonchalantly sashaying in and out the charts like that for years now, while Big Boi in the meantime releases his second (third, if you count Speakerboxxx) solo-album, in which he actively reaches for the borders of hip-hop. Both names are still a guarantee for quality raps, but if your in the mood for adventurous music you’ll be far better at home with the “player” than with the “poet.”
On Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors Big Boi opens with the words “If you don’t know me by now you’ll never know me,” an exclamation that opens the door to what promises to be his most personal album. It’s the first album by one of the two Outkast members without any involvement from the “partner in rhyme.” Still, Big Boi sought to collaborate tightly on the album, mostly with indiepop-duo Phantogram and Swedish electro-formation Little Dragon. The combination of styles results in an electronic funk somewhat reminiscent of a 2012 update to Prince’s sound of the late ‘80s to early ‘90s. Big Boi seems to feel in his element on those type of beats and the feminine voice of Phantogram’s Sarah Bartel and in particular the understated, mesmerizing voice of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano (who aside from her vocal contributions also co-wrote the single ‘Mama Told Me’) contribute a pleasant counterweight to bouncing flow and strongly articulated funk-infused raps of Daddy Fat Saxxx. Once again a contrasting interaction that works out well. But between the tracks with these ladies you can also find a knocking dirty south banger like ‘In The A’ (featuring T.I. and Ludacris, both finally in a return to form), a rap-ballad like ‘She Hates Me’ (featuring KiD CuDi) and an electro-pop song like ‘Raspberries’ (which barely contains any rap at all), among much more.
The enormous diversity of styles is admirable but also forms the Achilles heel of Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors. Big Boi tackles them all well, but the huge amount of guest performers and disparate influences also leads to a lack of cohesiveness. Tremendous Damage is the penultimate track of the album, a song in which he deals with the loss of his father in a captivating manner. Descending, which closes the album follows suit: “When I think back, I’m glad I lived it all, the pain when I’m thinking about it, dad I will not fall, even tired and all.” It’s an impressive and emotional two-parter in itself, but coupled with opening track Ascending it suggests a narrative arc to the album that’s hard to perceive. There aren’t many weak tracks and though he consistently raps well it feels more like a compilation of Big Boi tracks than an actual album.
Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors isn’t without error, but those that tread on the path to adventure tend to come across some pitfalls. Big Boi doesn’t shy away from taking a risk and delivers an interesting and engrossing album right on the line dividing indiepop and hip-hop. We’ll always retain the hope for an Outkast reunion, to hear how these two brilliant opposites compliment each other, but the polarity of their dynamic seems to have reversed completely. Hopefully, it’ll finally allow Big Boi to step out of Andre’s enormous shadow. A persevering adventurer like him certainly deserves it.