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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Big Boi Carries On

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Fans longing for an Outkast reunion should imagine how Big Boi feels. The rapper has made no secret of his desire to see his pioneering Atlanta hip-hop duo end its indefinite hiatus, but his estranged collaborator André 3000 has shown little interest. This distance between the two childhood friends has made for some occasionally uncomfortable moments, the most awkward of which came this winter when Big Boi supplied verses to remixes of Frank Ocean and T.I. songs featuring André 3000 and overzealously billed them as Outkast reunions. That prompted a cold rebuke from André, who made it clear that he considered himself a solo artist and didn’t sanction the remixes. “These songs are not Outkast collaborations,” he wrote.

And so, at least until André 3000 experiences a change of heart, Big Boi has carried on as a reluctant solo artist. And he’s made the best of the situation. Recorded at the same Stankonia Recording Studio that birthed Outkast’s records, with many of the same backing singers and players, his 2010 solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty was as inventive and mirthful as Outkast’s finest output, an album that could proudly stand alongside Aquemini or Stankonia. And if his new Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors isn’t up to the Outkast standard—and let’s be blunt here; it’s not—it at least finds him taking chances he probably never could have with André, partnering with unlikely indie and electronic musicians including Little Dragon and Phantogram, who each appear on two or three tracks. The less said about “Shoes for Running,” the bad-as-it-sounds collaboration with the snot-punk band Wavves, the better. At its best, though, the album conveys a real thrill of discovery, as Big Boi looks beyond his usual funk/soul comfort zone and revels in the realization that no sound is off limits.

Big Boi didn’t consciously set out to make such an exploratory record. “It’s just the way it turned out,” he explains. “Recording is an experimentation process, and you never know where the groove’s gonna take you, but it worked out. I was loving it; it’s those surprises that keep me excited about making music.” He calls his collaborations with Phantogram and Little Dragon “some of the purest forms of music making, because they actually came down to Stankonia and camped out for a week at a time. We were together day in and day out. We were just jamming so hard it was like, ‘OK, let’s keep this up, let’s keep this going.’”

Asked if he thinks he’ll work with those artists again, Big Boi answers with a quick and decisive “Oh yeah,” and it’s a safe bet that he’ll follow through with those plans. His career has been defined by loyalty. That trait explains why he has continued to carry the Outkast torch, even as his other half has done so much to divorce himself from the duo. It explains why Sleepy Brown will always have a feature on every album he releases, even though there are plenty of other singers who would love the opportunity. And it explains why he’s sharing his current tour with Killer Mike, who once escalated a very public feud with Big Boi following some business disagreements five years ago. Big Boi now dismisses that falling out as “just a little something that wasn’t really nothing.” Even if it was something at the time, though, he doesn’t particularly seem like the type to hold grudges.

And so with his longtime collaborator Killer Mike—who is currently riding high off of a career-defining album, last year’s magnificently vital R.A.P. Music—Big Boi is hitting the road for a lengthy tour, backed by his usual band. “We’ve got the full band with us: drums, keyboards, background singers, guitars,” he says. “These are the guys that’ve been playing on our music since day one. They know all the music so it’s not so programmed to track. We can venture off and do all sorts of fun stuff since they know the sound. That’s always been the thing; we’ve always got the band with us.” And should André ever decide to return home to Outkast, Big Boi and that band will be right there waiting for him, ready to pick up where they left off.

Big Boi and Killer Mike play the Rave on Friday, May 3, at 8 p.m.

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