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How Idlewild Brought OutKast’s Symbiosis To Life

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As far as group dynamics in hip-hop go, OutKast will go down as one of the most delicate balancing acts in history. André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton first formed the group in 1992, which took off with the subsequent success of their debut project Southernplayalisticadillacmusik. Their particular breed of Southern hip-hop gave as many props to Parliament Funkadelic and Prince as it did to 2 Live Crew and The Geto Boys, two respective musical distinctions that would eventually stick to Dre and Big Boi. From 1998’s Aquemini onward, the duo began to explicitly play up the symbiosis of their double act amid rumors that they wouldn’t even tour together on the same bus. They separately created two albums and smashed them together into what would eventually become 2002’s double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below, a 40-track fever dream of funk/hip-hop/R&B/soul/jazz that was originally supposed to be the band’s final farewell to fans.

Instead, it only pushed OutKast further into the spotlight. Critical acclaim and monster record sales (the album went 11x platinum) created a swath of new fans who were chomping at the bit just as much as the old ones were, and the boys decided on an addendum: One last group album with an accompanying movie set for release in 2006, both called Idlewild. The album sold well and eventually hit platinum status, while the film, a 1930s-era musical written and directed by music video auteur Bryan Barber, didn’t make too much noise; it barely made its $10 million budget back at the box office, critics were mixed, and audiences couldn’t care less. Even so, both the film and its soundtrack, which stretches across five years of the duo’s music, are a testament to the persistent duality that is OutKast.

Idlewild the film originally started out as a project based on Aquemini, oddly enough. MTV loved the idea when OutKast pitched it in 1998, but they wanted to cast Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes because they were more famous, so the duo rolled their ideas around for another eight years until they came up with the story of two lifelong friends who grew up on opposite sides of the track; Percival Jenkins (Benjamin), a reserved mortician by day and popping pianist by night, and Rooster (Patton), a bootlegger with a brain as slick as his voice is sweet. The pair hold down a speakeasy called Church in the fictional Prohibition-era Georgia town of Idlewild, but outside of a few moments at the beginning and the end, Church is the only place we ever see the duo together. Their stories branch off and begin to take on their personalities soon enough; Percy begins a love affair with newly arrived singer Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) and delves into rose-scented R&B experimentation, while the feisty Rooster focuses on taking care of his growing family and fighting for control of his uncle’s bootlegging business with the slimy Trumpy (Terrence Howard) and sticks to the rhythm of Funkadelic meets Geto Boys. Even if the Prohibition-era trappings are cliche to a fault, an all-star cast of Black royalty (Cecily Tyson, Terrence Howard, Faizon Love, Patti LaBelle, Ving Rhames, Ben Vereen, Macy Gray, Paula Jai Parker), fantastic dance choreography, and the overwhelming infusion of OutKast’s signature music and style is intoxicating.

Idlewild the album shows that the boys never really left their sides of the tracks well enough, but show-stopping numbers are pulled from further back in the duo’s discog. Rooster serenades a crowd early on with the smooth bop of “Bowtie” from Speakerboxx, and Sleepy Brown (in character) shows up to sing the bridge. A long-winded car chase is set to the tune of synth-heavy “Church” from the same album, while Percy sings an eerily pitched down rendition of The Love Below’s “She Lives In My Lap” to a corpse he’s dolling up near the end, long after an extended piano duet that’s actually “Movin’ Cool (The After Party)” from Big Boi and Dre Present…OutKast. That’s not to say that the Macy Gray-assisted “Greatest Show On Earth” and the more traditionalist closing R&B diddy “When I Look In Your Eyes” aren’t showy enough, but they draw attention to the fact that all of Patton’s songs came from Speakerboxx, which bolsters the importance of that album in the film’s eyes.

Andre and Big Boi’s respective musical directions had been clear since 1998 and their personalities, Big’s flashy high-living exuberance and Dre’s debonair quirkiness, just as well established. They had played nice on record up until the 2001 greatest hits compilation Big Boi and Andre Present…, and their vast experimentation afterward led to Speakerboxx/The Love Below turning into a double album bursting at the seams with concepts and ideas like a sped-up dance version of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” Rumors that the movie was completed two years before the album swirl around to this day, and if they’re true, then that makes the double album not just a precursor, but the inspiration for this project.

Not to suggest that Andre and Big Boi are on bad terms in the real world. Big Boi recently told Pitchfork that he and Andre have embraced “the brotherhood aside from the music” this past summer through paint balling and golfing with their kids. During an interview with Q-Tip and D’Angelo on Beats1 Radio, they called up Andre on the phone, but he couldn’t talk because he was in the studio, quietly toiling away. I will always believe that even as Big Boi moves on to collaborations with Phantogram and Andre drops further and further off the musical grid and embraces acting, they will always remain friends; but the path leading up to Idlewild proves that even when they couldn’t be any more different musically, their symbiosis flourished unlike any other.

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