With albums like ATLiens and Aquemini under their belt, alternative hip hop duo OutKast had become renowned for their ability to break down hip hop’s barriers and their willingness to experiment with new sounds and influences. But not until their momentous double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below – essentially a pair of solo projects – did Andre 3000 and Big Boi really and truly define their own individual musical identities. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx certainly stands on its own as a superb Southern hip hop record, don’t get me wrong – but it’s Andre’s The Love Below that lunges beyond the norm and dares to be different, offering an eclectic mix of pop, hip hop, soul, and jazz, all wrapped up in a single psychedelic bundle. Every preconception about Andre 3000 as an artist was shattered, exchanging OutKast’s spacey abstract rap for an even more experimental foray into avant-garde pop. It’s a beautiful mess, but Three Stacks is a man of many faces, and he wears each of them equally well.
Despite the swathe of stylistic influences and different sounds present on The Love Below, Andre unites the album’s twenty tracks amidst themes of love, sex, religion, and romance, setting the backdrop for a series of elaborate, and at times, almost absurd skits. It’s an album that on first listen, might feel erratic, sloppy, and loosely defined; but it soon becomes apparent the album’s openness, and such strong sense of intimacy is what binds it together. Both thematically and musically, The Love Below is so endlessly dense, so publicly personal, and so consistently charismatic. Andre’s musings are effortless, but beautifully conveyed, addressing everything from religion and love in the dreamlike vignette God, to relationships and sex on the mellow interlude Where Are My Panties. A forerunner to today’s Kanye Wests and Kid Cudis, Andre breaks the mould of his hip hop contemporaries, preferring to dwell on ideas of identity, self, and progressive constructions of gender rather than those typical themes that characterised gangsta rap and hardcore hip hop.
The Love Below is Andre 3000’s answer to a pop counterculture – at it’s core, this is a pop record, yet in every other way, it isn’t. Art pop finds itself contaminated by strains of jazz fusion, alternative R&B, and neo-psychedelia, and most of the time, all of these influences at once. There’s still moments where Andre treads familiarity with his hip hop roots on tracks like the closer A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete), but it’s more warped than even OutKast’s most abstract moments. Somehow, every sonic experiment that Andre embarks on finds itself integral to The Love Below – even the album’s most lowkey and straightforward cuts are essential.
But when Three Stacks goes truly above and beyond, the results are musical statements that only serve to redefine traditional notions of genre and style. Love Hater flirts with soulful jazz before quickly descending into chaotic Mingus-esque cacophonies of brass, Spread takes on gospel grooves and avant-rap, while Andre’s cover of John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things fuses jazz and breakbeat as if they were made to be. For every erratic jazz reinterpretation he gives us, Andre offers audiences a cloudy alt-R&B guitar tune to match; Prototype floats atop bouncy plucks and dreamy electronics, whereas Take Off Your Cool sees Andre and Norah Jones play it far straighter and far folkier. There’s nowhere that The Love Below won’t go – Andre’s superb vocal performance adapts to every track, finding that sweet spot in the groove, be it distorted falsettos on Dracula’s Wedding or funk chants on Happy Valentine’s Day.
Yet The Love Below goes further than simple amalgams of Andre’s stylistic precursors – when convention is thrown completely out the window, the best tracks are born. These tracks don’t struggle for musical identity; rather, they totally reinvent it. She Lives In My Lap effortlessly combines hip hop rhythms and jazzy bass riffs atop a backdrop of eerie electronics, growing in energy and eclecticism as the mix swells with the weight of distorted guitars and Andre’s self harmonies. As this seminal deep cut collides with a wall of dissonant brass, Hey Ya! erupts from the mess, an unforgettable electro-funk jam that can make any audience groove in 22/4 time. It’s timeless, it’s classic – it’s one of those songs that shatters every mainstream trend and still manages to weave its way into the cultural zeitgeist, concealing every experimental tendency beneath a mess of sounds hailing from folk, funk, soul, and electronica.
And then there’s Pink & Blue, a track that goes from lowkey electronic soul in its first half to an indescribable sort of funk-baroque pop fusion in its second. Andre’s vocals ebb and flow in the best possible way, swaying with the same psychedelic flavours that he brings to the instrumentation. There’s a shared bittersweetness amongst all these tracks, a melancholy love story always aching beneath the surface of Andre’s grandiose orchestration – penultimate track Vibrate exchanges these subtleties for one of the album’s most honest addresses, Andre speaking directly to his audience atop a misty stage of spacey synths and messy, reversed percussion.
The Love Below is one of those few albums that feels like it should be challenging to listen to – but rarely are listeners pushed away, even at Andre’s most erratic and abrasive moments. It’s an album that forces audiences to reconsider notions of both contemporary pop and its alternative counterculture, letting the subtleties and nuances of Andre’s eclectic experimentation poke through beneath a beautifully composed layer of art pop appeal. After The Love Below, Andre 3000 was no longer a rapper, but an artist, defying the constraints of both hip hop and pop to deliver a one of a kind, truly spectacular solo debut.