Big Boi: “Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty”

What’s in a name? Quite a bit, evidently– enough that the first proper solo album from the Outkast camp comes with three of them adorned on the front cover: There’s Big Boi, Sir Luscious Left Foot, and the Son of Chico Dusty. Flip the album over and you’ll find a couple more on the back– Daddy Fat Sax and General Patton. They are, of course, all one man– Antwon Patton, who most commonly goes by the Big Boi label– and their presence scrawled over the CD artwork and tracklisting isn’t evidence of multiple personalities so much as a man who thinks (and rhymes) about himself enough to have collected such a wide array of nicknames. Not too surprisingly, this same man has decided to make his first full-fledged solo statement one that’s all about himself; Sir Luscious Left Foot, despite a not unimpressive cadre of guest artists and producers, is all Big Boi all the time, a reflection of its auteur’s busy and brilliant mind and an outpouring of his ego, his id, his interior monologues and his carefully-guarded persona.

And that’s okay, because Big Boi is not a character, a cardboard cut-out, or a cliche: He’s a complex and contradictory man who has been put into a fightin’ mood due to several years of record label turmoil and long delays on the true beginning of his solo career. This, after all, is one of the minds behind a now-classic hip-hop album that juxtaposed the tough-talking brutality of “Gangsta Shit” with the tenderness and sensitivity of “Ms. Jackson,” and Sir Luscious is borne of many the same contradictions. And yet, an extension of his Outkast work this is not: Though there are a few familiar stylistic hallmarks along the way– like on the thick Southern drawl and bizzaro funk of “You Ain’t No DJ,” not surprisingly the one song here to feature Andre 3000 at the helm– this isn’t an album about gangsta shit or “Ms. Jackson” pathos so much as it is the sound of a grown man at play– an artist with both the skills and experience to be running the rap game, but who prefers to assert his domination not through brute force or sheer aggression so much as through dizzying displays of alarming virtuosity.

And so Sir Luscious is not a Southern-fried, P-funk quoting and feedback-drenched manifesto on the state of the world, the rap game, of Outkast or of Big Boi himself– it’s not, in other words, an album descended from Stankonia or Aquemini. But nor either is it another Speakerboxx; while that album sought to reclaim the wild ambitions of hip-hop’s golden age through its freewheeling energy and its bounty of ideas, Sir Luscious is a sleek, modern production. Big Boi riffs on seemingly every trend that’s hot in rap circa 2010, but he’s hardly cashing in: This isn’t a concession to modern commercial concerns so much as a glorious upheaval of them, with Sir Luscious turning the ubiquitous vocoder from an instrument of dancefloor sterility into a gloriously oddball rumble on the album’s champion single, an oddball club banger that seeks to bring back the “Shutterbugg.” The song, like the rest of the album, is steeped in synthetic tones that point back to 1980s electro-funk, but it isn’t evidence of nostalgia so much as a giddy jumbling of sounds and styles, eras and icons, with General Patton moving the pieces on the board with such effortless style and easy mastery that it’s hard to tell whether he’s showing off or simply having fun– or perhaps both.

The range of ideas here goes far beyond club-ready rumblers– witness the vulgar, bluesy grooves of “Tangerine,” or how “Turns Me On” flirts with both Chick Corea-style electric piano tones and a zoot suit breakdown that briefly harkens back to the old-timey affectations of Idlewild– but Sir Luscious is united under the many names that it bears, and the one man who conjures them all with such interchangeable ease. As an MC, Big Boi is an unusual character: He clearly has one foot in the old school, with most of these songs essentially being battle raps that trumpet his own (unimpeachable) skills on the mic, but in these modern settings he never allows his rhymes to drift too close to the streets, instead filling every bar with weird turns of phrase and non-sequiters, with spectacularly bawdy jokes and come-ons, with lyrics that hint at politics but mostly deal with sex and the rap game. He threatens other MCs with true aggression and he pumps his pick-up lines with more testosterone than you’ll find on any single ‘Kast album, but he never takes any of it too seriously: He tends to back off quickly, not because he doesn’t have the skills to back up his boasts but precisely because he does, and those skills speak for themselves– his rhyming is borderline preternatural, staying completely on top of ridiculous cadences with perfect vocal dexterity, sometimes weaving outside of the rhymes just to prove that he can.

As a major-label rap album of such sprawling vision and eccentricity, Sir Luscious is largely without precedent– it reaches farther than any Lil’ Wayne album, and it packs more fun and pure joy per minute than any of Kanye’s records– and it stands impressively on its own, a fine complement to Outkast’s albums that never threatens their own stature as classics, but does enforce Big Boi’s own legacy, both within and without the group. (Indeed: Andre may be known as the group’s more eccentric member, but Sir Luscious packs far more ideas into its running time than The Love Below did; it’s way more bangin’, too.) For a more interesting comparison, though, one might note that Daddy Fat Sax released his album– finally!– mere weeks after The Roots released their masterful How I Got Over. The two albums couldn’t be more different– one emphasizes sprawl, the other economy; one is utterly modern, one completely out of time; one an album of carefree boasting and good-times exuberance, one a contemplative work about growing up and acting responsibly– and yet, taken together, the two records represent the best of where hip-hop is and where it can go next in 2010. The Roots, for their part, have seemingly reacted to the genre’s excesses with an album that’s artful and succinct; Big Boi, meanwhile, revels in them, and what he’s made feels less like a stand-alone album than an extension of the artist himself– a self-expression, an unstoppable force of imagination.

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