Back in 1985, less than a year after the iconic Purple Rain film and soundtrack album, Prince issued Around the World in a Day. A carelessly psychedelic pop detour from Purple Rain's muscular arena rock, Around the World in a Day earned notices ranging from cautiously respectful to outright dismissive. Some reports called it Prince's fuck-off album, an attempt to bite the fans who fed him.
More than two decades later, music critics are using Prince's two post-Purple Rain albums -- Around the World in a Day and 1986's Parade -- to describe OutKast's Idlewild soundtrack, which drifts from funk-influenced hip-hop to jazzy, swing-era beats with the same nonchalance. As usual, Andre 3000 and Big Boi demonstrate an ear for melodic talents and natty rhythms as sharp as any found on their prior classics. The album's tone is all over the place, floating from angry rebukes against the pressures of success to masterful and sincere attempts at whimsy. Unevenly sequenced, it isn't as concise as its world-beating epic, 2003's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Some believe Idlewild's slippery appeal will someday make sense. Once maligned upon their initial releases, Around the World in a Day and Parade's stature among fans improved as listeners grew to understand what Prince attempted to create. Plus, no critic wants to be remembered as missing the boat on Idlewild, the latest release from one of the best groups of the past decade.
Forget about its future reputation for a moment: How does Idlewild sound now? It opens with a skit and "The Mighty O," a track that couples a heavy, churchy organ with a marching band drumline. "You ain't a hater, can't tell/Either wish me well, go to hell or go to Yale," rhymes Andre 3000. "Use a permanent smile on my face because you say you don't like my style/But that's OK, but just make sure you don't touch that dial and we'll be cool/Touch it and youse a fool."
"The Mighty O" is one of four numbers on which both Andre 3000 and Big Boi perform together. For the rest of Idlewild, they retreat to their now-familiar separate corners. Big Boi offers up sharply defined cuts like "Peaches" and "Morris Brown," the latter featuring Morris Brown College's famed marching band. Andre 3000 crafts light piano escapades like "Makes No Sense at All." A few artists from Big Boi's Purple Ribbon label make memorable appearances; Scar, in particular, sounds wonderful on the chorus for "Morris Brown." Occasionally, a snippet from the actual Idlewild movie plays -- Terrence Howard dresses down Andre 3000 just before "PJ and Rooster" kicks in.
Duality has been a constant theme throughout OutKast's career. Past efforts have revolved around Big Boi and Andre 3000's contrasting personalities. On Idlewild, the group flip-flops between joyfully innocent music and conflicted, frustrated lyrics. Nearly every song references that dissatisfaction -- Big Boi even blasts "Gang of nerds on the Internet/Slandering your name" on "Hollywood Divorce." Meanwhile, OutKast continues to craft amazingly complex beats, from the B-boy Monk-isms of "In Your Dreams" to the disco swing of "Call the Law" (think '70s-era Pointer Sisters and Bette Midler). Some of the music is so happily uncomplicated that the duo hardly bothers to write lyrics to it. On "Life is Like a Musical," Andre 3000 and keyboardist Kevin Kendrix play a series of bright, propulsive riffs. Then Andre 3000 repeats, "don't let 'em" and "change us" on the chorus.
In all fairness, Idlewild's fragmented nature may be caused by its alternate function as a soundtrack to the movie musical of the same name. But the album's slight yet impressively realized sketches also give it a melancholy, yearning quality, as if the tide were high and the party nearly over. Or has the party just hit a lull?
The last track, "A Bad Note," out-funks all of OutKast's past psych-rock opuses, including "Chonkyfire" and "Toilet Tisha." For eight minutes, an uncredited chorus of voices harmonize, "Bad note/Ain't no bad note/If it's a good note" as murky guitars and drums leak everywhere like black tar. "A Bad Note" ends the beguiling and ambiguous Idlewild adventure, and if it isn't a fuck-off song, then I don't know what is.
For a review of the Idlewild film, click here.
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