OutKast: Idlewild

Hip-hop’s clown princes finally go gangsta: 1930s style. Roddy Woomble not involved

Of all the entries in The Bumper Book Of Hip-Hop Clichés (the clothing line, the Mini-Me, the Phil Collins cover…) the riskiest must surely be the vanity movie. Do it well and you offer your fans a life-affirming insight into your salvation through music while building further your international super-brand (before ballsing it all up with a Phil Collins cover). Do it badly and all you do is prove that the onset of egomania has reached pathological levels.

Of course, the disclaimer at the end of the book notes that things are never quite that simple with OutKast. Sure, Big Boi and André 3000 have always blinged with the best of them, but they’ve always done so to the beat of invention and adventure. It’s like, when they hit proper commercial paydirt with ‘Ms Jackson’, they decided that phase one of their career was over and anything they did next had to have a purpose, over and above simply being the best in the world at psychedelic hip-hop. Ergo, with hindsight the ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ project looks less like two distant megastars unable to work together and more like a well thought-out experiment to find what would happen if they made a record in two halves. And that went so well they now face the added challenge of following up ‘Hey Ya!’ – the most ubiquitous pop single in living memory.

It’s this thirst for adventure that brings us to ‘Idlewild’: a movie and soundtrack. Kind of. Things are, remember, never quite that simple with OutKast. But there is a film, and in it André 3000 and Big Boi play roundabout versions of themselves, only re-imagined as speakeasy musicians in the prohibition era Deep South, with a 1930s jazz and swing soundtrack to match. This way they get to work their acting glands, get a whole new musical genre to play with and live out some good, old-fashioned gangster-rap fantasies without ever having to get pistol-whipped for real. Genius!

Big Boi and Dré’s Rooster and Percival are two childhood friends from opposite sides of the tracks – the sons of a moonshine bootlegger and a mortician, respectively. The only thing they have in common is, you guessed it, their music – and it stays with them all their lives, obviously. Rooster ends up managing and playing in a speakeasy called The Church (“because it was anything but…”), where he employs Percival – still sprucing up stiffs under his father’s thumb – as a night-time pianist. Before long they’re caught up in nefarious gangster antics and their friendship is put to the ultimate test. It’s a colourful MTV romp that ultimately frustrates by never getting quite hyper-surreal enough. You imagine an OutKast movie would be a bonkers Moulin Rouge!-style musical fantasy, yet every time it gets there, director Bryan Barber shifts back into buddy movie mode, and played straight, it just isn’t quite good enough to stand up alongside real-world Hollywood.

So much for the film, then. You’d call the album its soundtrack if the best tracks from the movie (‘Take Off Your Cool’, ‘She Lives In My Lap’) didn’t actually feature on ‘The Love Below’ and if the best of the 25 tracks on ‘Idlewild’ actually featured in the film. There was talk for a while of both an ‘Idlewild’ soundtrack and a new OutKast album. The breadth of material here suggests they’ve stuck it all out together, which leads to one slightly confusing whole. Underwhelming lead single ‘Mighty O’ is nowhere near the movie, while southern-fried follow-up ‘Morris Brown’ could feature on pretty much any OutKast release to date. But don’t worry, there’s loads of smashes too: Big Boi’s catchy soul jam ‘N2U’ is straightforward R&B, while ‘Chronomentrophobia’ (the fear of clocks, fact fans) is a vintage slab of low-slung hip-hop with Dré rhyming on full pelt. What’s more, ‘When I Look In Your Eyes’, Dré’s jaunty piano jam and Percival’s song of redemption at the end of the movie, will be their new ‘Hey Ya!’ whether they like it or not.

They also leave plenty of highlights for the guests: ‘Hollywood Divorce’ pitches an unsettling army of sirens against Snoop Dogg rapping portentously about broken homes, while ‘Mutron Angel’ – a devastating protest song-cum-trip-hop experiment, led by soul singer Whild Peach – could be the most beautiful thing here.It’s all a lot to get your head around. OutKast have set themselves up for a concept album only to abandon the concept whenever they get bored. Luckily, they’ve built in their own get-out clause. If the only charge you can level at ‘Idlewild’ is that it’s a bit long and uneven and self-indulgent… well hello, this is their jazz album! That’s what jazz is like! You still couldn’t name another artist on the planet who could set themselves such a ridiculous challenge and pull it off with this much pizzazz. In any other hands this would have been a total disaster, but yes, things are never quite that simple with these two. The other thing about Outkast is that even when they make no sense whatsoever, they’re rarely anything less than brilliant.

Dan Martin