Album: Outkast

Spekaerboxxx / The Love Below
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The Independent Culture

Cruising smoothly into pole position for album of the year, Outkast's Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below is a landmark hip-hop release, fit to be set alongside the likes of 3 Feet High & Rising, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Marshall Mathers LP - the kind of album that changes the game completely, that renders its competitors suddenly obsolete and old-hat.

It's actually a double album, Big Boi and Andre 3000 opting to release two solo albums as an Outkast double album, with no weakening of the brand. There are so many musical tributaries coursing into both Big Boi's progressive-rap pyrotechnics and Dre's freaky jazz-funk love odyssey that even their old tag of "psychedelic hip-hop soul" starts to look restrictive. Often compared to George Clinton's eclectic Funkadelic collective, at times here Outkast prompt comparison more with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, thanks to the tricksy rhythms, treated R&B vocals, oddball sleazy humour and bizarre stylistic shifts of tracks such as "Ghetto Musick" and "She Lives in My Lap".

Boi's album is the more straightforward, its blend of carefully interlaid raps, skeletal techno beats, funk grooves and layered soul vocals still readily discernible as an update of the Seventies soul stylings of Gaye, Mayfield and Sly Stone. There are critiques of organised religion ("Church") and recent infringements on civil liberties ("War", with its claim that "we lost some rights in 1-1/9"), socially aware accounts of Boi's own single-parenthood domestic disruption ("Rooster") and the plight of a hooker ("Knowing"), and spruced-up anthems about stepping out in style ("Bowtie") - but no gunshots or testaments to criminal lifestyles.

Dre's album is something else again, a collection of love songs that sweeps ambitiously from string-drenched, Sinatra-style crooning ("The Love Below") to wild-but-cool jazz ("Love Hater") to clipped Prince-style funk ("Happy Valentine's Day") to terse garage twitch ("Spread") - and that's just the first four tracks. Languorously saucy, it includes basic but elegant entreaties to sexual congress, generous assessments of lovers' gifts, and various other ruminations of a romantic nature. There's even a dub-jazz track in favour of masturbation ("Vibrate"). A measure of Dre's smart, sly approach can be gained from the way "Pink & Blue" cleverly turns its source sample - R Kelly's dubious "Age Ain't Nothin' but a Number" - on its head by directing it at an older lady, rather than a child: "Miss Lady, you could have been born a little later/ But I don't care - so what if your head sports a couple of grey hairs?"

Littered with surefire blissful pop-soul hits such as "The Way You Move", "Bowtie" and "Hey Ya!", Speakerboxxx/The Love Below sets a new benchmark not just for hip hop, but for pop in general. The first great double album of the millennium.