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POP MUSIC

Alone together

OutKast, hip-hop's master of imagination, breaks down and amps up its sound with paired solo albums.

September 21, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

OutKast's Big Boi pats his trouser pockets anxiously as he walks with friends into Giorgio Armani's on Rodeo Drive. "Where's my credit card?"

There's a good laugh all around.

The Italian fashion designer asked OutKast's two members to be guest DJs at a civic celebration honoring him that evening. And by the way, he told the acclaimed hip-hop duo, stop by the store and pick up anything you want.

OutKast -- Big Boi and Andre 3000 -- is that rare recording team that can sell millions of albums and yet maintain a daring, underground creative spirit. It's the contemporary link with the great American funk music tradition. If James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton were teenagers today, they'd be grooving on OutKast and dreaming about being like it.

So it's a coup to have OutKast at the party, and the Armani store staff greets Andre and Big Boi with open arms. There are so many employees and executives on hand (including Armani's East Coast and West Coast "entertainment industry public relations directors") that the pair is a little overwhelmed.

Wearing a white Nolan Ryan baseball jersey, jogging pants and Air Jordans, Big Boi looks as if he's dressed for the gym or the rap stage.

Andre's outfit suggests he came straight from a psychedelic video shoot -- an improbable mix of blue and white checked gingham shirt, blue denim knickers, brown suspenders, newsboy cap and mini-boots. He designed the pants himself and, against all odds, he looks terrific in the combination. He certainly stands out amid the rows of high-style Armani suits.

The two prowl the aisles of the showroom tentatively, not knowing quite how much they should take. But with the staff urging them on, Big Boi and Andre eventually get into the spirit of the day.

Just as Armani himself sweeps into the room with an interpreter, Big Boi is eyeing a pinstriped suit while Andre has fallen in love with a brown and white herringbone jacket.

Armani thanks them for coming and says he's looking forward to seeing them at the party. He then kisses each on the cheek.

Before they have a chance to catch their breath, a fitter arrives. They end up with suits, jackets, ties, shoes, shirts and designer sunglasses. They look as delighted as kids with Halloween loot.

After millions of albums sold and a string of Grammy nominations, you'd think they'd be used to this treatment by now.

"Nah," Andre says sheepishly. "The only other thing we've ever got is a shopping bag with some Nikes in it."

Impressive credentials

OutKast may be a neophyte in taking advantage of its celebrity status, but the men's credentials as hip-hop artists couldn't be any more impressive.

They haven't succumbed to the superficialities of show business, from gathering freebies to becoming obsessed with award shows and industry galas. Nor have Andre and Big Boi tried to take short cuts to the top.

Rather than stick within the safe, commercial boundaries of hip-hop, the pair draws from funk, R&B, pop and rock influences to inject fresh, surprising textures. Much like the funk masters, OutKast loves sensory overload.

Its new, two-disc album, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," won't be in stores until Tuesday, but the advance buzz is so strong that some industry observers are calling it the front-runner for the album of the year Grammy.

That's because OutKast's last album, a masterpiece of sonic imagination titled "Stankonia," was nominated for best album in the 2001 Grammys, and the first two singles from the new album are phenomenal. HBO has already signed it to star in a movie based on the new album.

Illustrating OutKast's range and craft, each single is already a hit on competing radio formats. Big Boi's "I Like the Way You Move," with a chorus as sweet and smooth as a stylish Marvin Gaye ballad, is being played by stations with urban/R&B/hip-hop formats.

Andre's "Hey Ya!," seasoned with a raw burst of rock 'n' roll energy as delightful as the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," is brightening the airwaves on tastemaker rock stations such as KROQ-FM in Los Angeles.

The new package, with more than two hours of music, consists of two solo albums. Big Boi's "Speakerboxxx" mixes dynamic, horn-driven funk 'n' rap exercises and commentary (including one wary look at the nation's involvement in Iraq).

Andre's "The Love Below" is a concept work of sorts that examines his own difficulties in maintaining relationships with women -- from moments of outright lust to disarming self-reflection. The tracks offer more singing than rapping, drawing as much from rock, jazz, R&B and pop as hip-hop.

Like so many great pop teams, Andre and Big Boi bring separate strengths to their work. In "Speakerboxxx," you feel Boi's street savvy in the music and the themes -- a reflection of what it's like to feel young, optimistic and concerned.

Andre's music adds introspection, anxiety and artistic search.

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