Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hip-Hop's Last Great Love Album

Somewhere in the fold of Outkast's reign Andre 3000 and Big Boi split sonically. The likely answer to this was in the post-Stankonia age where, after four albums reaching critical-acclaim, they released a Greatest Hits compilation, something typically dedicated to group's long since defunct. Following that the duo hailing from the dirty south had never been the same. While Big Boi continued on his promise to bring forth funkalcious music inspired by George Clinton and influenced by his surrounding slang in Atlanta, Andre regressed into a love-induced daze, magnetized to the workings of electro-soul legend Prince and his ability to conjure up lust, heartbreak, and desire through his multi-instrumentalist talents.

This is where my connection to Andre split at the age of 11. See, only a couple years prior I had discovered Outkast through 'The Whole World,' the first ever Hip-Hop song I had heard, captivated instantly over music for the first time in my life. I began searching their catalog, eagerly anticipating their next release. 2003's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was one half everything I had hoped for, one half a startling disappointment filled with experimentation and love, the kinds of which I was not accustomed to yet. And while there were standout tracks, 'Roses' and 'A Life In The Day Of Benjamin Andre' being the two main ones, not coincidentally filled with rapping, the rest was ooey gooey love mush, far too adult-oriented for my ears. Over a decade has past now, and while The Love Below certainly isn't my favorite Outkast release, I can see the inherent beauty in it, an album far beyond its time, that sounds as fresh and inventive as ever, detailing the constant highs, lows, and middle grounds of love, sex, relationships, and break-ups. This is Hip-Hop's last great love album.

Upon your initial listen the thematic elements to The Love Below are obvious, from the song titles, to the cover, to the vocals, to the skits, everything really revolves around love and sex and their ever-lasting interlacing. There's no hidden messages, no alternative understandings, each and every song has a concise point, a definite purpose. And that's because, what most miss on first listen, is that The Love Below is a story, a concept album following Andre's troubling love life from conception to inevitable end. Early on Dre has a conversation with God, who happens to be a female, as she sends down good news that a lovely girl is coming in his direction soon. Valentine's Day soon turns its ugly head to all single-seeking-lovers occupants, with Andre proposing his own take on the marketed holiday, much different than Cupid Valentino's giddy perspective. Then, just like any other one night stand with the famed musician, Andre spends the night with a stranger enduring sloppy sex, of which they both loved but were too afraid to admit it.

Days, weeks, months maybe pass and, on 'Prototype,' 3000 has fallen in love with his perceived view of a perfect woman, but it isn't until 'She Lives In My Lap' that Dre's commitment issues begin showing as his accomplice-in-bed begins asking of their future plans together. He wants the girl all to himself, but can't spare to make that final plunge to monogamy. Finally, the oft-talked about 'Hey Ya' appears to bright, cheery Pop tunes with dark, aggressive relational undertones of the troubling relationship now brewing, before 'Roses' escalates everything with a verbal onslaught of Caroline's shallowness, gold digger tendencies, and overall bitch-demeanor, effectively ending their relationship. 

This concludes the first half of the album, or in simpler terms, Andre's first love, falling apart around him. What he thought was someone he could relate to, grow old with, and potentially have children with turned out to be nothing more than a groupie whose effectiveness at luring Dre in cost him his heart. The Love Below takes a look at both sides, for the second half sees him attempting to find a "real lady," someone with maturity, sophistication, and experience. The way the album progresses itself, swaying between locked lips and feuding ones, spares no expense on the part of the listener for excess. These are experiences nearly everyone has dealt with in some way. Andre's love memoir, more than anything else, is a look at the human struggle of monogamy, finding ever-lasting love amidst a sea of fakes, with all of us endlessly attempting to seek the definition of true love. It exists, we feel it, but can't pinpoint where it comes from, its purpose, or the varieties each human faces in seeing their own.

Andre 3000, or Ice Cold as he's referred to often on here, distances himself from women his age, hoping to find someone who's ready to settle down while already knowing the steps to take. Various pieces of taboo appear on the second half, symbolizing acceptance of one's inherent likes, suppression's that were long since held back have come bursting out to better one's life, specifically their sex life. Whilst chattering with Fonzworth Bentley, a man of great esteemed gentlemen-like qualities, the two feast their eyes upon a lady, of whom Andre then further seeks, complete with numerous qualities the rapper finds attractive. It isn't until 'Pink & Blue' that the truth comes out over Andre's new love, a cougar scantly doused in sophistication ("In a Claire Huxtable like way"), that rescinds Dre to baby talk, a risqué taboo in which each participant recites "goo goo gah gah" verbiage. Andre then proposes to "make love not war," looking past trite arguments to enjoy each other's company to the fullest. 

Things fall apart though, again, as the topic of long-term commitment arises, this time with a blood-seeking Queen of Vampires taking center stage in the form of Kelis, obsessively parading through the thought of existing forever with her future un-dead hubby, Andre the Dracula. He fears this, is terrified at every turn, and eventually runs away, only to receive a letter from his first love, proclaiming that she is still attached to him. On 'Take Off Your Cool' Andre urges Caroline to drop the act and remove the fake masking her true feelings. It isn't until then that he'll get to know her. But, as implied with 'Vibrate,' things don't work out and Andre's left to taboo #2, masturbation. Alone, yet still seeking sexual satisfaction, Dre ditches the immoral measures set forth by God and takes control of his future using his hand. Then he stands alone, for five minutes, reciting in clear detail, returning to his rapping roots, his career thus far, the lovers intertwined with his successes and failures.

The Love Below is about more than sex, it's about more than love. It's about accepting one's self, choosing to take control of your own life, aspiring to reach greater heights. Once one can see their strengths, and more importantly their flaws, they then can focus on a future with someone occupying that shared space. Kendrick Lamar off his renowned good kid, m.A.A.d city proposed this same message. 'Real's' premise was entirely centered around loving one's self before you let others in. "But what love got to do with it if you don't love yourself" he repeats multiple times in the song. Loving someone else, whilst unable to cope with one's own internal problems, will only lead to a troubling end. Andre's message had made that clear. He expressed interest in sinful acts, enjoying them every step of the way, yet couldn't confront the beast of long-term monogamy. The Love Below expresses these internal battles at every crease of a relationship, from the initial date, to the sloppy sex, to the fights, to the make-ups. It isn't just an album set for Andre's moment in time, it's a timeless piece, for as what Andre makes strikingly clear, love lasts forever, within all of us, and The Love Below will never cease to be relevant. 

There could be an argument made that, other than love, the one other timeless artifact is music. Just like love, opinions dominate its scope. Where one could find a person attractive, another could find repulsive, the same goes for music. However, the music we like, the love that attracts us, is forever-lasting in ourselves. And that's why Andre's styles on The Love Below vary so widely, they're his instinctual loves, never pandering to the continuation of Outkast's style or succumbing to Hip-Hop's norms. He expresses a range of genres to create a piece forever-lasting, yet instantly likable. 'Hey Ya' is one of the few Pop songs ever that, for the majority of the listeners, has not gone stale to the ear. In fact, a high percentage of tracks here sound plucked out of decade's through music, even one's that hadn't happened yet. 'Prototype' is highly-reminiscent of some of Prince's smoothest ballads, a soulful bassline carries the track, as guitar riffs drip in and out with 3000 lustfully oozing over his new-found love. 'My Favorite Things' is a 50's doo-wop melody, featuring a skit-skat piano. 'Pink & Blue' and 'Vibrate' utilize advanced electronic functions, as woozy synths and distorted clips encompass each song. And finally, 'She Lives In My Lap,' with its high-pitched howls, haunting background echoes, and simple hi-hats take from some of Hip-Hop's post-2010's tipsy era songs.

Songs are devoured in depth, detail, distortion, and decadence. There's hardly a song, brightly excusing the acoustic, skeletal 'Take Off Your Cool,' that fails to incorporate computerized alterations to any aspect of the sound itself, either Andre himself or the warped production behind him. It's this range of sounds that catapult The Love Below to something beyond your typical rap album. As we all know facing love head-on provides many challenges, starkly different than the ones before it or the ones soon to follow. One moment of sheer bliss could turn into unfathomable regret in an instance. Andre's first solo work accomplishes this sonically, cuing up moments through sound, not just lyrics. Telling a story is one thing, conveying it accurately is another. The sinful horns and lewd flute complement the jittery drums on 'Spread' to coincide with Andre's one night stand. The hollow, yet infinitely deep sonic grave of 'Pink & Blue' reek of the fetishized anthems played out in the song, to match with the swelling orchestra and toy drums on the back half. And 'Love Hater' clings to the idolized image of a romantic rendezvous, with upbeat jazz riffs parading through the track, as pure euphoria engulfs the two foolish lovers. 

2003, when Outkast's double album released, Hip-Hop was in a uncomfortable place. While Speakerboxxx, sonically-sound, continued in the fray of exercising limited creativity, The Love Below smothered itself in it. While Hip-Hop remained stagnant, content with the rappers' perceived macho bravado that dominated it, Andre took to dismantling the status quo. The emotional male, a concept so far gone in the genre, was something provocative, controversial, and new at the time, and Andre, after doing his best impression of the players stereotype in his previous releases, attempted to conquer the barrier that held the tough-as-nails males down firmly. Gangster rap saw life-changing events flash in front of rappers with little more than a self-realization of their surroundings as their immediate reaction. Crying wasn't in their barometer of emotions. Women were objects to attain, trophies to show off, not one's to impress, respect, and fall in love with. Taboo's, such as masturbation, were neglected, rejected, and mocked at, rather than accepted for what they are. Acoustic sets with adult contemporary female musicians would have been laughed off the stages of NWA, 50 Cent and DMX. And the appreciation of cougars, women dominant with power and seduction, failing to fall to the trivial whims of a player, were ignored, matters not in the best interests of rappers who lacked the confidence to mess with women above their age.

The Love Below smashed these barriers, tore down walls pre-created by the limitations of the genre itself. Outkast, as is undeniably accepted, paved the way for expressing one's unique form of entertainment. The 90's and early 00's saw the duo go from the streets of Atlanta, to space, to mother earth, to America, providing crushing blows to the fabricated confines of Hip-Hop and its acceptance in the mainstream. Artists like Kid Cudi, Tyler the Creator, and Kanye West wouldn't exist in their current form today if it wasn't for Outkast, and specifically Andre 3000's ability to look inwards, not for the achievements, strengths, and determination often found in other rappers, although those were present as well, but for his flaws, inhibitions, and failures. The Love Below was a critical look, not just at love itself, but the perception it has in Hip-Hop, a genre engulfed with sex but devoid of love. Andre didn't mind opening up, revealing his inner-most thoughts and desires, and certainly didn't resist tearing down the strains of the braggadocios, but slowly realizing self-depreciating man, not fearing opening up to his faults. Honestly, who would admit on a Hip-Hop record to crawling like a baby to his mistress cougar. He had to beg for that love below.

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