What Happened to That Boi?

Big Boi’s Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors is the kind of album that makes you hate reviewing albums. If you told me a dozen years ago that I’d grow up to slander my favorite half of Outkast, I’d have soon as run you over with a Coupe Deville and devoured strawberry lemonade, patty melts and popcorn shrimp in celebration. It would have been a sumptuous evening at the Cheesecake Factory.

No good can come from saying that I never want to listen to the new Big Boi album again. Who am I to tell you that his musical choices were mostly wrong? My musical highlight was a virtuosic recorder rendition of “Hot Crossed Buns” in the third grade. He made ATliens and Aquemini. He has earned the right to make worse decisions than a sorority girl who just downed a pint of Jaegermeister after breaking up with her boyfriend.

"If I started a vicious lie and dangerous rumor that the inspiration for this record was a Zip file of the Pitchfork 2009 Singles List, it would be totally believable."

My issue with Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors is that three-quarters of it sounds designed to offer solace to said sorority girl. This isn’t inherently bad. Thetas need soundtracks too, but a Sir Lucious Left Foot synth-pop jaunt won’t supplant Ke$ha or Mumford & Sons or “Pop That.” There are certain roles that are expected of us in society. Louis C.K. is meant to be the existential schlub. The Dalai Lama is required to wear saffron robes and dispense obvious but sage advice. And Big Boi is contracted to keep it funky.

That was the pact. If André 3000 was the astral futurist, Big Boi was the grounded philosopher, the thinking mack, rooted inextricably with the swampy Dirty South soil. André was the one with the pop touch and Big Boi kept it 100, the anchor to remind him that Beatles bobs and Jungle beats could only get so much burn in barbershops and strip clubs.  Or as the he said on “Aquemini,” he was the one down with the streets, “where his folks at.” And then the curtain closed.

In the aftermath of Outkast’s sabbatical with options, André moved to Hollywood, acted in movies about the ABA, appeared as the face of Movember, and slayed the occasional cameo. Big Boi drew the unenviable task of keeping the torch lit. So he released an excellent 2010 solo record and played for festival crowds whose introduction to Outkast came with “Ms. Jackson.” He encountered an array of new sounds, artists and colors of glow stick. Flash forward to him getting busted last year returning home from a cruise ship with a packet of E pills and his pal, Molly.

So it’s no surprise that Big Boi wanted to move in a new direction. He’s always been more eclectic than anyone gave him credit: singling out Kate Bush as his favorite artist, signing indie rock groups to his Purple Ribbon imprint, appearing on an episode of Law & Order and collaborating with Modest Mouse and the Atlanta ballet. Separately. Thankfully.

But if I started a vicious lie and dangerous rumor that the inspiration for this record was a Zip file of the Pitchfork 2009 Singles List, it would be totally believable. There is no reason why I should have to write this sentence: The Wavves and Big Boi track doesn’t work. But I just did. It sounds like Blink-182 trying to make a Vampire Weekend song three years too late. And there’s a cameo from B.O.B. whose sole purpose seems to be to make us miss 3 Stacks that much more.

There is “It’s OK,” a Pinkberry-lite song featuring Theophilus London. The chorus sleazily moans “Let me see your titties/ She said okay/ Let me see your pussy/ Okay.”  There is a token Kid Cudi song that saps all the fun and funk out of Big Boi and wedges him into Scott Mescudi’s vortex of wrist-slitting stoner music. There are no less than three songs with the indie-pop duo, Phantogram, one of which is called “Objectum Sexuality.” Sample lyric: I'll rub this stick on your bitch like a violin.” It sounds like the sort of thing Baz Luhrman would put in the soundtrack to a remake of Cruel Intentions.

That’s not to say that every experiment fails. The A$AP Rocky-aided “Lines” achieves the ruthless groove that you expect from Daddy Fat Sacks. Credit slick sinister raps and a beat from Organized Noize (who lamentably produce only two other tracks). But even then, Big Boi seems weirdly soluble. It feels like he’s rapping on an A$AP Rocky song—just like it feels like it’s a Kid Cudi song or a Phantogram song or a Theophilus London song or a Little Dragon song or a Wavves song.

The problem isn’t Big Boi’s rapping, which is consistently stellar. It’s that trouble usually ensues whenever you mix rap, rock, and/or synth pop. For every Beastie Boy you see, there are two-dozen Papa Roaches behind the walls. Wiz Khalifa originally flopped as the guy who sampled Alice Deejay before successfully reinventing himself as the soporific Snoop Dogg.  There is no sensible way to explain why John Mayer, Chris Martin, and Adam Levine cameos are rap cameo status symbols. And only Emojis can express the awfulness of Lil Wayne’s Rebirth.

You can probably guess the highpoints of Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors by glancing at the tracklist. “In the A” finds Big Boi, T.I. and Ludacris snapping over booming horns and concrete drums. “Gossip” finds Daddy Fax Sacks enlisting Big K.R.I.T. and the vaults of UGK. Ands thanks to a wrathful Killer Mike sermon, “Thom Pettie” overcomes its cringe-worthy hook (“Thom Pettie that ho. Repeat 3X. Free Falling. Thom Pettie.")

Whenever I think about this record, I keep returning to the chorus from “Lines”: “I keep it player while y’all choose to play it safe.” You have to respect Antwan Patton. He’s one-half of arguably the greatest rap group of all-time, a duo so far ahead that artists still steal from them a decade after their dissolution.  He doesn’t need to take creative risks, but he did. The problem is less the music than what’s missing from it: the grit and funk that made fans first flock to the “Players Ball.” It feels like the ‘77 Seville was swapped for a Prius.  Sometimes it’s better safe than sorry.

Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors is out now on Def Jam.