Defector Music Club Takes On The Expansive ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ As It Turns 20
10:35 AM EDT on September 22, 2023
Welcome to Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers get together to dish about an album and share our favorite new music. This month, Israel Daramola, Lauren Theisen, Luis Paez-Pumar, Patrick Redford, and Giri Nathan get together to discuss Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Outkast's unwieldy, indulgent, and quite possibly genius double-album release that's turning 20 years old on September 23.
Defector Listens To An Album: Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Luis: What was your previous relationship both with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and with Outkast’s oeuvre as a whole?
Lauren: I had two Outkast CDs while I was growing up: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and the 2001 compilation Big Boi and Dre Present... Outkast. Now I remember why I listened to one so much more than the other.
Israel: Outkast is my favorite rap group of all time. I've had an unhealthy obsession with them since I was kid and heard “Rosa Parks” for the first time. When I got my first car, the two CDs I wore out the most were Weezer’s Blue Album and Outkast's ATLiens. I learned a lot about life and how to be a person from these guys. When Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped I was in high school, it was a very big deal, both because of the singles and because they were releasing their solo projects together.
People have been pitting Big Boi and Andre against each other pretty much since the beginning. Who was a better rapper? Who added what to the songs? What were Big’s strengths, what were Dre’s strengths? Was Andre gay or just weird? Why did Big Boi “tolerate” it? Was Andre the deep one? Did Big only rap about pimpin' and Cadillacs? Just the dumbest shit in the world that persists to this day. I got Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
early thanks to illegal downloading through totally legitimate means. I enjoyed it, but realized even then how flawed it was, but I found those flaws fascinating.
Giri: Growing up I knew the singles as bar-mitzvah, sweet-16 staples. One of my friends performed a rendition of “Roses” in middle school art class, modified to describe a classmate’s sister, that (I believe) earned him a D and a talking-to from the teacher. I was in awe of the “B.O.B.” music video.
It took me a while to realize Outkast had way more to offer than its singles. I picked up Speakerboxxx/The Love Below from a very good record store (shoutout PRX!) and then those CDs lived in my car for the better part of six years. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s one of those two CDs that is permanently entombed in my car’s defunct CD drive. Some of my favorite songs ever are on this double-album, but, possibly because I listened it to extinction in that period, I’ve been going back to ATLiens and Aquemini much more often lately. Cumulatively, Outkast is among the artists I’ve listened to the most in my life. Any Andre 3000 guest verse is an Occasion for me. Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty has some bangers. I thought Andre was pretty good in that last Kelly Reichardt movie, and I’m happy he can just hang out and play the flute in unusual environs.
Patrick: I remember three distinct Outkast firsts. The first time I heard any music from this (these?) album (albums?) was a week after they came out, when my friend’s cool older cousin Brandon was driving my brother and me home from elementary school. He wanted to show off these concussive new speakers that filled out the entire back of his piece-of-shit Toyota Camry, and the song he played to show us that, if played continuously for long enough, the speakers would rattle every nut and bolt off the car was “Tomb of the Boom.”
I was hooked instantly, and as I became older and my music taste gradually got way worse and then slowly better, I still stuck with Outkast as a consistent listen through my teenage years. The first time I heard “B.O.B” was an equally mind-melting moment for me; I didn’t know music could be this dense and alive. When I played it for my mom and she said it was too crazy for her, that’s when I knew there was something here for me. The first time I heard “Spottieottiedopaliscious” I was like, “Hmm seems like having sex someday would actually be cool.”
Luis: I started listening to Outkast basically at the same time that I started downloading music off Napster and then Limewire. My first memories of Outkast are probably seeing the Stankonia singles on MTV, but my best early memories came from playing Final Fantasy IX on mute while playing Outkast as the soundtrack. It worked better than it sounds; one play-through, my cousin and I faced off against Kuja, the second-to-last boss in that game, while "The Whole World" blared. It rocked.
As for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, I remember asking my brother to buy me the album(s) on release day and I played them on repeat for days on end. I would listen to them on the bus ride to school, while playing other video games at home, and generally, for about a month, at all waking moments when I wasn't in class. I tried to memorize all the lyrics, and generally succeeded, save for some of Big Boi's faster rapping verses. Andre 3000's half was much easier in that regard, and even though I wasn't fully aware of who Prince was and therefore who Three Stacks was emulating, I loved how weird and not-Outkast it was.
Lauren: The last phrase gets at what bugs me about this release, especially the Andre side: Why would you want something not-Outkast from Outkast?
Luis: I think, because I only had Stankonia as a reference before these albums, I enjoyed a departure from what I knew of them before. I wasn’t fully aware that Andre 3000’s half of this would be an outlier in their whole discography. It wasn’t until I went back and listened to Aquemini, ATLiens, and the debut that I realized how much different it truly was, and I think retrospectively, I consider it better because of that. It wasn’t Outkast, but it was very much Andre 3000, and those two things can live together on the same release, since Speakerboxxx is very much an Outkast record that just happens to be missing Andre 3000.
Lauren: “Just happens” is really underselling it, though. It’s hard for me to talk about this record holistically because, like, the five best tracks across the two CDs are better than 99 percent of what you’ll find on any other in the universe. But as a coherent experience across about an hour each, Speakerboxxx is to me only half of a great Outkast record and The Love Below is … I don’t know. It’s too much like Beck’s Midnite Vultures, I guess. If I was hanging out with Andre in 2003 for some reason and he was like, “here are some tracks I was messing around with but didn’t release,” I’d be like, “This is so cool but also yeah, that makes sense.” To me, the ideal version of this album is one combined main release and then a deluxe edition with all the loosey-goosey Andre stuff.
Israel: Andre vs. Big Boi was a prevalent point of contention between a lot of Outkast fans. I think because the two guys are so different in presentation and style, that there’s a little of like, “Well how are these guys able to make music together?” which is dumb of course. Their differences are what makes Outkast special and different from any other rap group. There was also a sense on Stankonia that they were both starting to get interested in different sounds. I think it was an experiment, and like a lot of artists that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful at that point in time, they overloaded it with their own self-indulgence.
Patrick: The cover to Stankonia itself is, maybe only in retrospect, a useful visual hint of the aural schism to come. One experiment I conducted upon re-listening was to play the whole-ass double album on shuffle, which led me to encounter, say, “Unhappy” alongside “A Day In The Life Of Benjamin Andre." As obviously different as the two are, I was struck by their similarities as rappers (at least when Andre was actually rapping on this album, which is to say, not often). They both skitter over and through the beats like electrons, each in their different ways, and while the two albums are obviously distinct (for one, Speakerboxxx is tight while The Love Below is like 20 indulgent minutes longer), I really think they work as a cohesive statement. This is sort of what Israel was saying, the shared expansiveness is never not exciting. I think it’s a good thing that this is the only album featuring both Norah Jones and the Eastside Boyz.
Lauren: Yeah, I mean, Lennon and McCartney broke up in opposite directions after about a decade, too. (Probably a little less, actually.) That doesn’t mean they didn’t have incredible chemistry together, and an ability to speak the same language to each other, musically.
Giri: It’s interesting to hear you guys talk this through—I have always just thought about this as an Outkast record, just decomposed and intensified. I don’t see it as a major outlier in their discography. There are lulls in each album where you almost pine for the presence of the missing collaborator, but in style and sensibility I think it all fits comfortably within the larger umbrella, give or take a few Prince howls.
Israel: Lennon and McCartney never made “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” Before we get too into this album, we should probably talk about the two singles, “The Way You Move” and of course, “Hey Ya!” What was it like revisiting those songs? How’d you feel about them?
Luis: You forgot the best single! “Roses” is the most Outkast song of all on this project.
But, for the dueling singles, I hated “Hey Ya!” at first. It felt too cloying and in on its own joke. Meanwhile, I loved “The Way You Move” because it felt like the natural evolution of, say, “So Fresh, So Clean.” I’ve softened on the former, though, and now I consider both elite singles in very different ways. I wouldn’t put either in the top tier of Outkast songs—the way I would “Roses”—but they are both good examples of what makes each guy so interesting.
That being said, man, you could not escape either in 2003. It’s impressive that two very different songs from the same group, sort of, could be so massive at the same time. The all-encompassing presence of the songs definitely wore on me even as a 14-year-old, though.
Lauren: I want to shout out “GhettoMusick,” too, which does an awesome and very fun loud-quiet-loud thing. Did you know Patti LaBelle is in the video? “Roses” was a song I never got for quite a long time—it felt juvenile and shaggy—but I’ve come around on it having a kind of “Bohemian Rhapsody” multi-layered grandeur to it. (Billy Haisley does a great job with it at karaoke, too.) “The Way You Move” is just an extremely tight pop-rap hit. And then “Hey Ya!” has transcended even Outkast itself. It definitely adds to the Andre mythology that he never really tried to follow in the direction it pointed. I can’t find sourcing on this but I had it in my head that, when they reunited for a ton of festivals in 2014, Andre did that song with his back to the crowd. Either way, pretty cool to make one of the most popular songs of all time as a little genre exercise you get bored with in like a week.
Israel: He did that at Coachella for multiple songs I believe. It’s a pretty open secret that he only did that whole reunion tour as a favor to Big Boi.
I think what’s so interesting about “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” particularly when you compare them, is how much they tell you about each artist. Big makes this genuinely earnest celebration-of-life type of song about getting at the ladies and Andre accidentally makes one of the biggest pop songs in the world totally ironically, and in this overly arch way. Those guys really are so unreal.
Patrick: The guitar riff in “Hey Ya!” is the funniest thing in the world, I can picture a five-year-old who just started lessons nailing it. We talked about this on the Bowie edition of Music Club, but there’s something beautiful and ominous about how the best pop songs kind of function like curses to those who create them. That song’s place within an album whose creator is otherwise concerned with pressing play on some jazz songs and doing a Prince impersonation is also extremely funny.
Giri: Due to overexposure, I can barely get through a full listen of “Hey Ya!” anymore, and “Roses” is pushing it too (though I like it a lot more as a song, the way it just meanders into new ground). “The Way You Move” is always welcome in these parts.
Patrick: Can I make a claim here that “Dracula’s Wedding” is a top-three song on The Love Below? Any peanut butter and jelly sandwich heads?
Luis: Patrick, it’s up there for me, though it probably falls out of the top three (“Roses,” “Happy Valentine’s Day,” and “Take Off Your Cool.”)
Giri: There’s no cracking the three-song run from “Spread” (a top Outkast track ever, for me) to “Prototype” to “She Lives In My Lap.”
Lauren: The thing is, nothing tops a Coltrane juke remix. Sticking “My Favorite Things” near the end is a silly but ultimately inspired choice. It’s a total DatPiff move, on a major label release, two years before that site even launched.
Giri: “My Favorite Things” is like the Platonic main menu music for a Tekken game.
Luis: I fucking love “My Favorite Things,” for much the same reasons that Lauren said, and also what Giri said.
Israel: I’ve always preferred “She Lives In My Lap.” I have a lot of strong feelings about The Love Below, many of them negative, that I’m sure we’ll get into soon. I think “Unhappy” is the best song on this whole project.
Luis: Israel, let’s get into them now. The "Andre vs. Big Boi" thing is reductive and misguided, but that's not going to stop me from putting you all on the spot here: Which side do you prefer? Why?
I'll start: When I first heard, I was definitely more of a fan of The Love Below, for the reasons I stated above. However, as I grew more into Outkast fandom, I began to prefer Speakerboxxx, often by a wide margin. The songs are tighter, the beats are better, and I like a handful of the features. (Though it’s a bummer how he’s evolved into a weird pro-cop, pro-gun landlord, Killer Mike’s “You can follow, or lead like Commander Picard/ You can have the whole world/ Or be satisfied with the boulevard” has lived in my head for 20 years.)
Upon relistening to this in 2023, though, I find myself more drawn, again, to The Love Below. Listening to Speakerboxxx as a whole gets exhausting, while The Love Below never loses its charm for me throughout, save for the skits (both albums are plagued by interminable and unbearable skits).
Israel: I loved Speakerboxxx more then, I love it more now. It is very obviously the superior project. Here is the thing about the comparisons: My biggest issue with it is that I think people don’t have enough appreciation for Big Boi as an artist. The reductive thing is to go, "well, Andre is the deep, introspective, genius and Big Boi is a more typical southern rapper," which is condescending but also incredibly untrue. They’re both geniuses, the difference is that Dre is a lot more neurotic and inside his own head, and THAT is what separates the two albums to me.
Speakerboxxx feels like it came from an artist that is extremely self-actualized and self-assured in what their strengths are, what their tastes are, and what their interests are. The Love Below by comparison feels it came from an artist in search of something, an artist that wants to rebel, but it’s not clear against what so he’s rebelling against it all. Dre was obviously growing bored with rap, but it also seems like he was growing bored with pop music. He’s reaching for Prince, because that’s what you do when you want to venture out into musical outer space in search for meaning. All of this is fascinating and I could write 10,000 words on it, but it doesn’t always make the songs good.
Lauren: I think it’s hard for me to get away from the mindset that Big Boi is “realer” because he stuck with the genre that made him, while Andre is kind of play-acting at a lot of different whims. It’d be easier to dissolve that divide, though, if Andre wasn’t so insanely good at rapping and so reluctant to do it. In that way, The Love Below almost feels a little tragic to me, in that it didn’t lead to some huge revolution in hip-hop or even pave the way for something greater in his own career.
Patrick: Speakerboxxx has the best beat (“Unhappy”), the best rapping-as-rapping (not to mention most of it), and the best song (“The Way You Move”). Like Israel said, Andre’s performative weirdness can easily be over-adored and lead one to think that Big Boi is just a regular guy, the straight man who creates the foundation for Andre to go off and invent new colors or whatever. I don’t buy this, and while Speakerboxxx is certainly the tighter album, it’s pretty expansive, and also, War & Peace would look focused and taut when compared to The Love Below. But again, the scale of this project is part of why I love it even for its long dull moments. It’s nice to be in this world for a whole 8½’s worth of runtime.
Israel: I think a lot of people learned the wrong lessons from The Love Below, similar to how they learned the wrong things from 808s and Heartbreak. The Love Below became the way to make a rap album that wasn’t a rap album by adopting a sort of faux-transcendence that could be passed off as something more artistic. You can see a lot of it in what Tyler, The Creator is doing right now or the last Childish Gambino album. Even someone like Juice WRLD is doing The Love Below mixed with Simple Plan.
Patrick: It’s wild to listen to these albums alongside both the Teezo Touchdown debut and long, anxious conversations about the state of hip-hop at 50.
Giri: Or, to Israel’s point, the last Lil Yachty record. Given the diverging visions on this double-album, I have always liked the fact that the best futuristic space-rap song is actually on Speakerboxxx: “Unhappy.” I love how Big Boi’s influence rubs off on his guests and draws the very finest pistachio-related imagery out of Ludacris on “Tomb of the Boom.” I love both sides of this record, but the simplest way I can describe the contrast is framed in the negative: The low moments on Speakerboxxx bore me, and the low moments on The Love Below genuinely annoy me.
Lauren: That’s maybe a good segue into the question that’s dogged me since I revisited it and found it fairly tedious: When would you actually want to listen to The Love Below, as a whole?
Luis: Quite often! Maybe more than Speakerboxxx as a whole, because man, there are some momentum killers on that one. I have more of a fondness for the weirdo parts of The Love Below that are overtly self-indulgent. That being said, I return to specific songs on Speakerboxxx more often; the two singles, definitely, but also “Unhappy,” “Flip Flop Rock,” “Church” is fun, etc. I just think Speakerboxxx works better as a collection of great songs, if you ignore the bad ones and the skits, while The Love Below feels better as an album to me, which apparently is diametrically opposed to how you all feel.
Israel: On Valentine’s Day.
Lauren: But for real, I don’t really get its purpose. It’s not as good a party record as Speakerboxxx; it’s not more introspective than Andre’s best verses from earlier in his career; and, as much as sex permeates the whole thing, Andre’s no Barry White. Like a used condom, it signifies sex, but it doesn’t inspire it.
Israel: I think people are going to read this and feel like we’re dumping too much on Andre, a lot of people’s “GOAT rapper,” and that’s really not the intention here. I love Andre. It’s cliche as hell but he was the first guy to show me it was OK to be a weirdo. I love him like he’s part of my family, but I think music in general has flipped to fit his image. There are good things about that and bad things, as there always is with influence. I just wish he could’ve gotten out of his own head a little bit more. Even now, when you listen to him in interviews, he talks about writing with so much neurosis, to the point that it’s keeping him from making music. It sucks for us as fans, but really it sucks for him. That’s not a good mindset to be stuck in. It’s a little bit of the Jay-Z thing, where people have been mythologizing him for so long that you can sense the need to over-correct.
Giri: Allow me to briefly register my surprise when I heard Jay-Z’s voice here on “Flip Flop Rock.” I had forgotten completely.
Israel: It's the 50th anniversary of hip-hop (allegedly), so we have to talk about this Grammy win. It’s the second rap album to win Album of the Year, following Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999. A rap album hasn’t won since, and this was in 2004. Very weird, and even weirder that this specific project won. It’s strange how commercialized and part of the public consciousness rap is now, and yet it doesn’t feel any more respected now than it was in the beginning. It’s just a cash cow for what’s left of the music business.
Patrick: Andre’s outfit that night is a legit all-timer, like something Bad Bunny only wishes he could wear on WWE. In that light, Israel, it feels like some sort of cosmic joke that, if you want to take Grammy wins as a yardstick here, “Hey Ya!” is the most famous song on the last rap album to win Album of the Year. It’s also interesting to frame their Grammy win against Outkast getting booed at the Source Awards in 1995 for representing the South. Back then, regionalism was like the defining fracture within rap, and while that hadn’t faded out a decade later, and while this double-album is not sanitized of any of its Southern particularity, you could already see the rough, interesting exterior of hip-hop being sanded away. Not that it's their fault and not that the album itself even represents this phenomenon as such, but it is still so grim that only two rap albums have ever won and that the art form has been so ruthlessly commercialized. This shouldn’t have been the high point, and yet.
Luis: Looking back at the other nominees, it is objectively correct that this won. Evanescence? Justified? The White Stripes? All of those albums have songs I enjoy, even Evanescence, but come on. These two albums winning album of the year is funny, because it’s not coherent at all as one project, but it was both the critical and commercial choice here, which is a rare slam dunk for the Grammys. And that’s what makes it weird to me: This was an instance of the awards show rewarding the correct thing, and a rap release at that.
Giri: It is odd. Rap has probably been the defining influence on popular music worldwide over the last decade or so. No rap albums awarded since? Partially, this is an index of the uselessness of the Grammys as a whole. Partially, it’s because a lot of the most interesting goings-on in rap are well outside the studio album format that the Grammys reward.
Israel: Patrick you’re right about it from Outkast’s perspective. It was the perfect cap to their career: from being booed at the Source Awards and saying. “the South’s got something to say,” to their group more or less ending with this historic win. I think by and large there’s too much power given to these awarding bodies that, as we’ve pointed out, aren’t actually in tune with what’s going on in culture, but as a Cinderella storybook moment: you can’t beat it.
Defector's Favorite Jams Right Now
Mitski - The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We
After a bit of a stumble with 2022's Laurel Hell, Mitski came back throwing 100 from the mound. Her seventh album is her most contemplative yet, which is saying a lot for an artist that lives inside her own mind most of the time, and it also might be her most beautifully arranged release yet. "Heaven" is a personal favorite, taking a "back to nature" feeling and making it feel like the most holy of connections. The orchestra flourishes in the last 30 seconds make me feel weightless and breathless.
Sylvester - "I Need Somebody To Love Tonight"
I have this feeling that, if Andre 3000 was born like three decades earlier, and came of age before what they're calling hip-hop's birthday, he'd have been something like Sylvester, who was also magnetic, passionate, and nonconformist while still carrying plenty of mainstream appeal in his music. Sylvester's core genre was disco, and "Mighty Real" is the giant party-starting hit that stands the test of time. But this track, released the following year in 1979, is the other side of the coin. It's hypnotic and patient without ever lagging, as Sylvester's gorgeous voice glides over an absorbing, circuitous hook. Its emotional scope reaches out so far beyond just the notes that are played, and it makes for a blissful late-night comedown from the traditional disco formula. You could definitely stick it smoothly onto The Love Below, even without a juke beat.
Lil Peep & ILoveMakonnen - "Diamonds"
As I've gotten older, I've found that I've gotten more romantic. Not just in the theoretical way that I view life and art and dumb moments in sporting events, but literally in the things I'm most drawn to now. That romance can be perverse or juvenile, like it is on NYC rapper Cash Cobain's new project Pretty Girls Love Slizzy; it can be emo or wistful like the new music from Mitski or Olivia Rodrigo or Rod Wave. It can even be marketing manipulation, like the new Diddy album. But it needs to be earnest, and the most earnestly romantic thing I've been listening to has been "Diamonds," the long-rumored collab between the late Lil Peep and ILoveMakonnen. Makonnen has always been a charmed favorite, a Daniel Johnston-like figure in hip-hop, with a knack for toe-tapping earworms. Combined with Peep's 2000s emo flair, they produce something totally off-center and yet perfectly pop. Their chemistry is radiant and alive, their words are intoxicating, and that's exactly what romance should be.
Pavement - "AT&T"
I just saw Pavement, so I'm a very deep Pavement zone for the first time in a decade. This was my personal favorite from the show, and I was happy to discover that Stephen Malkmus can still yowl as wildly as its conclusion demands. I know it's late to relitigate this, but any of you geezers who were around to form the contemporaneous critical response to Wowee Zowee have so much egg on your faces! It's full of the best Pavement songs, which aren't really songs at all. They're doodles that gradually fall apart into noise, and maybe, in their last moments of coherence, they'll thank Jacob Javits for his glass house. "AT&T" makes me laugh and feel unplaceably sad.
Anish Kumar - "Little Miss Dynamite," plus a TikTok
We blogged for a very long time, so though I have two recommendations, I will keep them brief. The first is this magical TikTok of these two guys playing an improvised drum set under a bridge. The second is the debut mixtape (album?) from Anish Kumar. I stumbled upon the song below a few weeks ago and felt an itch in my brain that I wasn't aware of being scratched. Turns out that the tape dropped that very same day! Lovely.