"Oh my God," gasped my wife, Suzanne, when she opened the CD booklet to Bubba Sparxxxís second album, Deliverance (Beat Club/Interscope). "If I saw these pictures before hearing the music, I wouldíve thought he was a neo-Nazi."
The front and back cover of the new Deliverance are visible to every Wal-Mart shopper, and theyíre reasonably nondescript. But the inside does make the most of the titleís reference to the creepy Burt Reynolds movie that gave squealing like a pig a bad name, indeed. One photo shows Bubba standing in the woods with a shotgun slung over his shoulder; another shows him sitting holding a huge bowie knife, balancing its point on his knee. Yet for me, and I assume for other hip-hop fans who know the clichés, the weapon photos are just an artful way to offset the rapperís most arresting and ornate feature: a pair of tattoos reading "New" on his left forearm and "South" on his right. Just like the remarkable "hick-hop" music on the CD, those "New South" tattoos declare Bubba as far from racism as any bootstrap American can get.
Although Deliverance includes a song titled "New South" and Sparxxx talks about the concept eloquently in interviews, nowhere on this otherwise excellent CD does he come out and define what it means. Despite his masterful timing, one of the rapperís intractable shortcomings is his frequent failure to project above his music. But maybe thatís because, these days, Sparxxx and his primary mentor/producer Timbaland are allowing the music to do so much talking too. With its dense collage of gritty blues, old-time hillbilly ballads, mournful fiddle tunes, metal-tinged rock, symphonic funk, and hyper-syncopated "Dirty South" hip-hop, the album thrillingly trashes the idea of cultural segregation like another piece of white trash half a century ago trashed the divide between blues and country.
Just like Elvis and unlike Eminem, Bubba also is often mistaken for black when heís heard on the radio ó a mistake that no one attributes to minstrelsy but to his pure Southernness. The difference is, as he made clear on his far simpler debut album, 2001ís Dark Days, Bright Nights (Beat Club/Interscope), Sparxxx is well aware of the legacy of resentment that Elvis left, and he rightfully refuses to take a white liberal guilt trip about it. "I probably wonít even fault ya if you dismiss me as the demon," he raps on Dark Daysí title track. "Because itís true/I am not you/My skinís the tone of pissy semen/But if we fight this evening, I assure you, weíll both be red/And itíll take your whole slum and all they guns to leave me dead/Plus all that blood we shed wonít do nothiní but serve they purpose/So letís unite these dark days and bright nights then see whoís nervous."
Nevertheless, itís easy to see how people might get the completely wrong first impression of Sparxxx. For starters, heís not what most people mean when they think "New South." At best, the term usually refers to the birthplace of New Democrats like Bill Clinton; at worst, to the warm jingoism of country stars like Toby Keith. Despite their differences, Bill and Toby both represent a phenomenon that social scientists and media pundits have been noting for years: the concomitant white suburbanization of the South and Southernization of Americaís white suburbs. What Bubba Sparxxx represents, in contrast, isnít really the New South nor the Old, but a specific cultural underbelly that has survived throughout this transformation. This underbelly is what Sparxxx, a school bus-driverís son who grew up half a mile from his nearest neighbor, shares most deeply with OutKast, a pair of black MCs from an old urbanized Atlanta suburb whoíve just released their fifth album to worldwide acclaim.
AS MOST OUTKAST FANS KNOW BY NOW, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista) marks the groupís near dissolution. If Bubba Sparxxx started his career with two strikes against him ó one for the rube implicit in his first name, the second for his triple-X-laden presumption to street cred ó OutKast have been equally stymied by two grand slams. Their third and fourth albums, Aquemeni (La Face, 1998) and Stankonia (LaFace/Arista, 2000), were nearly unprecedented successes, refusing to surrender the thrill of "Gangsta Sh*t" while reaching for a political consciousness and musical daringness far beyond anything attempted by other street-bound rappers. But as became clearer over the course of all four OutKast albums, that earth-and-heaven achievement was dependent on the tensions between Andre 3000 (a/k/a Andre Benjamin) and Big Boi (a/k/a Antwon Patton) ó the former a freaky tofu-noshing genius, the latter an MC deeply tied to the thug-loviní streets. Instead of succumbing to those differences and breaking up, the pair have now made another unprecedented move, releasing two all-but-solo CDs packaged together as Speakerboxxx /The Love Below (Arista).
The mere survival of OutKast seems to have given the group a free pass with critics who otherwise might have been a little less than sanguine about Big Boiís Speakerboxxx and Andreís The Love Below. "Now, it could be argued, I suppose, that if you took the best half of Big Boiís material and the best half of Andreís material, you could have made a tighter, more consistent single album," writes Ed Masley in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But it wouldnít be as good." Thereís some truth to that, but it misses the point. "We just split it down the middle so you can see both the visions," raps Big Boi at one point, and the problem is that both visions used to work in tandem, like binocular vision should, and whatís gained by the split doesnít make up for whatís lost.
Which is not to say that nothingís gained. "I know you wanted that 808," declares Big Boi on Speakerboxxxís first single, "The Way You Move," which lays out a typically fast and jiggling Dirty South rap unexpectedly broken by a horn-drenched chorus as honeyed as Marvin Gaye, circa "Sexual Healing." But if the combination delights like an unexpected kiss, the full album doesnít follow through by going all the way.
Impressively, Big Boi alone does often match the level of OutKastís best songwritingó "Unhappy," for one, is yet another example of the groupís stunning ability to turn despair into joyous release. But the loss of Andreís freaky drawl and the relatively straightforward production keeps Speakerboxxx from attaining the rich texture that made Stankoniaís electro-buzz so groundbreaking. Even the thrilling roll of one of the best cuts, "Flip Flop Rock," feels held back by Jay-Zís simple guest rap where Andreís explosive vision should be.
Andreís single, "Hey Ya!," shows the full measure of that vision with high-stepping electro-pop thatís so unhinged yet so tightly constructed that it alone offers the fullest justification for the split on the double album. An inspired depiction of a relationship in terminal disrepair ("You think youíve got it, oh you think youíve got it!/But got it just donít get it until thereís nothing at all"), its ecstatic misery is just as remarkable as that in Big Boiís "Unhappy," though itís hard to see where Andreís partner could have fit into this rhythm-and-pop vision.
And if Big Boi does an admirable job of holding the idea of OutKast together on Speakerboxxx, Andre all but abandons rapping for crooning on the rest of The Love Below, unwinding like Prince on all those discursive albums he used to churn out between masterpieces in the í80s. Call it a combination of Lovesexy and The Black Album, exploring the promise, pleasure, and disenchantment of love and sex in a graceful cycle thatís never resolved, with far better occasional raps. Again like Prince, Andre has also signed contracts to turn The Love Below into a film, even going so far as to move to LA to realize his cinematic dreams.
Meanwhile, Bubba Sparxxx has also moved, buying a house in the ritzy suburbs outside Atlantaís I-285 perimeter. Both Andre and Bubba deserve their new homes, and thereís no point in complaining that it takes them away from the cultural wellspring that allowed their art to flow so free ó but it does. A quick gander at online Census Bureau maps reveals the distinguishing characteristic that makes that underbelly of Southern culture unique: the South not only has the nationís highest percentage of African-Americans, it also is the only area where blacks live outside urban areas in great numbers. One of the best and most telling lines from OutKastís past is, "People think weíre country, but weíre really just Southern." Whatís really lost on The Love Below/Speakerboxxx is that that very Southernness.
MY BROTHER IN-LAW, a transplanted Georgian whoís lived both in a rural town and the state capital, suggests some of what that Southernness means for whites: "Prejudice doesnít feel more intense here in the South, itís just that race is a more frequent topic of conversation here," he explains. "We include it in our talk about food, sex, music, NASCAR, and the latest mall opening. Race courses through the blood here, whether youíre black, white, or Hispanic or whatever. Itís pumped out from the heart."
An e-mail from a rapper and fellow critic, David McCullough, explains it from a black perspective: "From Donnieís revivalist soul to the swanky rap drawl of the Ying Yang Twins, Atlanta is hot . . . OutKastís Andre 3000 isnít the first ghetto youth turned bohemian by the anything-goes-meets-Southern-hospitality swirl that is Atlanta, and judging by Goodie Mobís Cee-Lo Greenís recent transformation, he wonít be the last. Most people in Atlanta arenít from Atlanta ó so maybe the freedom to change into something new is the real attraction."
McCullough sent me that e-mail from the road. A couple weeks ago, he emptied his Cleveland apartment, packed what he could into his car, and headed South.
Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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