Based on names alone, you might think Southern hip-hop was a micro-genre ruled by pint-size street poets — a niche market teeming with Lil Waynes and Lil Boosies, Young Jeezys and Young Dros.
Those honorifics often belie colossal talents, but Antwan Andre Patton never had that problem. Better known as Big Boi, half of the Atlanta rap duo OutKast, Patton has always owned his stage name, lacing larger-than-life rhymes with wisdom beyond his years.
After making his debut with OutKast in 1994 at age 19, Big Boi dropped his first proper solo disc Tuesday, after a few years of label hiccups kept it in cold storage. Appropriately, the title is a mouthful: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. And everything else about this album is big, too — from the plush, pummeling beats to the dense, dexterous verses.
With Shutterbugg, Big Boi is a blabbermouth of the highest order, unleashing the song's refrain in a staccato rush: "Now party people in the club it's time to cut a rug/ And throw the deuce up in the sky just for the shutterbugs." He isn't spitting over the track, he's spitting from inside of it, surrounded by muscular synthesizers, cavernous hand-claps, juggernaut bass. Instead of crashing cymbals, every 16th beat is punctuated by the sound of crashing automobiles.
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Somehow, he manages to supersize the proceedings with the album's next cut, General Patton. There are operatic vocal samples, contorted brass, drum-machine tremors — it's as if the maestros at NFL Films were commissioned to score Armageddon. "Speed it up like Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Boi go fast/ Not a hobby, this my life. You disrespect it, that's your (expletive)," the rapper blurts, before unspooling a torrent of unprintable trash talk.
This isn't grandstanding, just a veteran's poise. With OutKast, Big Boi redefined the boundaries of hip-hop, namely by helping erase them. Over the course of 16 years and 17 million albums sold, OutKast still stands as the most imaginative and innovative partnership in the history of rap music. The credit often goes to Andre 3000, the duo's splashier half, but while OutKast remains on extended hiatus, the intensity of Big Boi's solo outing should silence anyone who's ever questioned his contribution to the group.
And what about the group? If OutKast's woefully uneven Idlewild soundtrack, in 2006, foreshadows the pair's creative future, maybe these two are better off working separately. In addition to the hulking beats that populate Sir Lucious Left Foot, Big Boi is showing that he's quite capable of offering sharp social commentary and tremendous street swagger all on his lonesome.
You can hear it on Fo Yo Sorrows, a dreamlike lament featuring George Clinton. "Yeah, I'm still speakin' about it 'cause New Orleans ain't clean," Big Boi raps, bemoaning the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "When we shoutin' 'dirty South,' I don't think that is what we mean/ I mean, it mean the rough, the tough, the dangerous, we reign supreme/ Can slaughter entire teams with the ink that my pen bleeds."
It's a protest, a boast and a rally cry in one — the mark of a rap giant who sees the big picture.