An Anchoring Force: Big Boi @ 45

An Anchoring Force: Big Boi @ 45

Let it be ingrained as holy writ: The union of Big Boi and André 3000 is indivisible. All apologies to Q-Tip and Phife, Prodigy and Havoc, Ghostface and Raekwon, Pimp C and Bun B, John and Paul, Michael and Scottie and macaroni and cheese, but OutKast is the greatest duo of all time. A marriage of two inventive equals somehow both diametrically opposed and deceptively similar, they famously acted out the archetypes of the poet and the playa, the eccentric visionary and the stoned craftsman.

Reality, however, is always more complicated. After all, genius exists but rarely thrives in isolation. It comes in many forms, but we usually only revere it after it’s been illuminated by obvious signifiers like tribal gnome costumes, iconoclastic posturing and naming your son Seven in solidarity with George Costanza. But should you closely examine the legacy that Big Boi has left behind, both in OutKast and in his solo endeavors, it’s obvious he’s every bit as formidable as his longtime partner. And if you disagree, you entirely missed the point of Aquemini.

It’s rare when any rapper or writer sketches their genesis as clearly as the future Daddy Fat Sax did on “West Savannah” — a song initially composed for OutKast’s debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but which wouldn’t appear until their third album, Aquemini. Big Boi conceived the verse when he was just 18, and the Faulknerian-but-make-it-funky detail was already there. This is how the story goes:

February 1st, 1975 it happened
Was born in West Savannah way before I started rappin’
My mamma had a n—a at the age of 15
My daddy was sellin’ that sack, now he’s gots responsibilities
Stayed at me granny’s while me mammy was at work
And she couldn’t watch my every move so shit I started servin’
Around Frazier Home, down in the West Side projects
Changin’ over foodstamps, and hittin’ a lick was next see
I’m just a playa like that, my jeans was sharply creased
I got a fresh white T-shirt and my cap is slightly pointed East
So flyin’, or floatin’, a Brougham is what I’m sportin’
Sade is in my tape deck, I’m movin’ in slow motion, boi
So meet me deep in the streets, that’s where I learned the capers
Us lickin’ blunts, lickin’ leaves, rollin’ reefer papers

Enter the project baby born to a teenaged Vietnam Vet-turned-sometime dope dealer and a mother who worked as a retail supervisor. In the 10th grade, Antwan Patton fled his flip-flops-and-socks backwoods roots to head to East Point, Atlanta, where he lived with his aunt Renee and eventually linked with André Benjamin, another newcomer to the S.W.A.T. who barely knew a soul.

They bonded at Tri-Cities High over Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. & Rakim, UGK, 8Ball & MJG and the Rap-A-Lot catalog. Calling themselves 2 Shades Deep, they switched to the Misfits and finally settled on a name only matched by Ludacris in its ability to inspire misspellings on high school essays. Big Boi would eventually graduate with a 3.68, with plans to study child psychology at NYU. But who needs college when you’re winning Source Awards at Madison Square Garden?

Slide through the intersection of Headland and Delowe, “the start of something good,” where Rico Wade, the mastermind of the production juggernaut Organized Noize, first met the teens scarcely old enough to convincingly talk about ’77 Coupe de Villes. ­­Rico soon moved to Lakewood Terrace and commandeered the dank basement of his mother’s house, which became a studio known as the Dungeon. Beat machines coated in dust. Weed smoke, dirt and must smothering the air. At any given moment, seven guys silently huddled on the steps writing lyrics; others dozed off upstairs on a hardwood floor. A nearby gas station deli sold a spaghetti special with five meatballs; most nights, it was split for dinner. In due time, the anonymous writers became icons — OutKast, of course, but also Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze and Witchdoctor.

From the first single, they overcame a seemingly vexed proposition. Wary of their odds of stardom, label boss L.A. Reid originally tapped “Player’s Ball” for the LaFace Christmas compilation (hence the sleigh bells and nog allusions). Nonetheless, the leisurely silken funk and slow-rolling sedan cool won out over the seasonal gimmickry. It helped that a pre-Ready to Die Puff Daddy directed the video, which introduced the world to Atlanta as the capital of the New South. This wasn’t Kilo Ali and MC Shy D, the Atlanta bass kings who had ruled the first half-decade of the Freaknik era. This was OutKast, kicking Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, rolling straight Hammers and Vogues in that old Southern slouch. The slang was in effect, because this was Georgia.

We rightfully consider Nas and Mobb Deep adolescent prodigies, but from their first bars, Big Boi and Dre dipped and swerved light years ahead of most of their peers. Young General Patton laments his pager blowing up on Christmas because “a junkie is a junkie, 365.” His flow emerged fully formed — a darting stutter-step capable of leaving you stuck in the soil. Swift and relentless as a tank, but intuitively gifted at using negative space. He pauses for a second, to let a joke sink in about how the package store’s closure ruined his day, then peels out.

Nostalgia for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik typically revolves around how it invented a musical identity for a region that had previously been unduly influenced by New York boom-bap, Miami Bass and post-Native Tongues horseshoe hick-hop. But there was also a subtle depth to Big Boi from the get-go. On “Git Up, Git Out,” he turns the barrel back on himself, lamenting a damned childhood as a “Rosemary’s baby.” “D.E.E.P.” is a meditation on the devilish temptations and fatal consequences inherent in trying to survive in Southwest Atlanta.

If 1996’s ATLiens found André sober, vegan and entranced by Erykah Badu, Big Boi was in mourning, grappling with the death of the aunt who had been a second mother to him. Here, he begins to really assert his role as the group’s natural-born gravity, the de facto leader. As André once told GQ, “[M]y partner, Big Boi, has always been on it. He’s sharp. He always knew the right decisions. Right before our second album, he had a kid, and he and the girl stayed together, and they’re [still] married now. I did the opposite. I’m all over the place.

“Big Boi is smart as fuck. We went to the same high school. I dropped out in 11th grade. Big Boi graduated with honors. When you watch early OutKast videos, Big Boi’s the leader. He always had the confidence, where I was kind of like the shy one. Big Boi can rap better than me — I always said that.”

As the story goes, André was the seeker and Big Boi offered an anchoring force. But what’s so singular about OutKast is that neither half conformed to expectations. Take a song like “ATLiens,” where Big Boi rattles off one-liners permanently seared into the hip-hop lexicon (“cooler than a polar bear’s toenails”), interpolates Rakim but warps it into the Clinton era (“I heard it’s not where you from but where you pay rent/Then I heard it’s not what you make but how much you spent”), and ends the verse by shouting out his Uncle Darnell locked up in prison.

Whereas André is more self-consciously poetic, there is a dangerous precision to his partner’s directness. See Big Boi opening up “E.T. (Extraterrestrial)” with the lines “every day the sun sets just like clockwork/To put the Glock to work/And putting the body to standstills/Man, it kills me.” It hits with a profound understanding of consequences as well as a syllabic precision that contorts and bends for maximum impact.

André and Big Boi respond and react in absolute harmony, and just when you think the roles are predictable, they’re quick to switch it up. This fusion into one coherent form was never more obvious than on Aquemini, the widely acknowledged masterpiece that might be the best album ever made, in or out of hip-hop. (After all, it is its own species, simply OutKast.) Their co-conspirators — Organized Noize, the Dungeon Family, Badu, Raekwon, George Clinton — unquestionably deserve credit for their contributions. But what Big Boi and André conjured remains the pinnacle of not only their catalog, the region or even the era writ large; rather, Aquemini embodies the idea that two innovators can reach levels and discover shapes that neither could have discovered on his own. Think of a color combination previously unimagined and unseen, yet so organic that to describe it sounds overwrought. Go listen to Big Boi rap again on “Skew It on the Bar-B.” Raw, and I do mean raw.

By Stankonia, you started to see the seams. It’s nearly flawless, but the idea of what an André song is and what a Big Boi song is became clear. Strawberry lemonade and popcorn shrimp proverbs were heeded. OutKast produced most of it themselves, another aspect overlooked in their catalog. Organized Noize are undoubtedly all-time greats, but we forget that 3Stacks and Chico Dusty produced “Elevators,” “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.”

In an ironic twist, the essential contributions of Big Boi only became more apparent in the wake of the group’s permanent hiatus. Despite still being an elite rapper, André has yet to release a solo album (unless you count The Love Below, which is technically credited to OutKast). Big Boi has a solo classic under his belt in 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, a narcotic, no-frills strain of modern funk, greasy as a used paper BBQ plate, full of seismic 808 slaps and sleazy strip-club soul.

Then there are the moments of his career that don’t necessarily fit into any coherent narrative. Got Purp? Vol. II basically codified the post-OutKast sound and helped introduce the world to Killer Mike, Janelle Monáe and Poo Bear (who has written too many hits to even begin to unpack). The Clermont Lounge should give Big Boi (and Bubba Sparxxx) royalties for every pilgrim who walks through the door. Meanwhile, you could write entire essays about Big Boi’s contributions to “Watch for the Hook,” “In Da Wind,” “International Players Anthem,” “Dirty South,” “85” and “Black Ice (Sky High).” Any one of those 16s would be a career zenith for your average rap star.

The genius of Big Boi, who turns 45 on February 1, lies in his ability to conceal it in plain sight. He was the voice of reason who ensured the most surreal ideas were balanced by a sense of gravity, blessed with the instincts to know when something was finished. He is relatable; he represents us. Still, he remains a genuine character who owns Eurasian eagle-owls named Hootie Hoo and Hoodini. He’s down-to-earth but deeply cerebral, intricately tethered to the funk and four elements of hip-hop, but willing to experiment with the Atlanta Ballet. The playa was also the poet, and the poet was also the playa, praying together through hard times and swinging hard when it was fitting. Until the sun goes down…

Jeff Weiss is the founder and editor of POW (passionweiss.com), as well as the co-editor of theLAnd Magazine. His work has appeared in the Washington Postthe Los Angeles TimesGQ, Pitchfork and other outlets.

Image: Big Boi performs during the Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show in Atlanta in February 2019. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty.

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