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Incongruous Review

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Back in the mid-90’s, when I was in grad school in Maryland, the Washington Post had a habit of sending reviewers to the wrong movies. What I mean is that when summer rolled around, and the incredibly dumb blockbusters hit the screen, they would invariably end up being reviewed by somebody who was really into art-house flicks. And at the same time, obscure indie films about gay cowboys eating pudding would be reviewed by somebody who really wanted to see a special-effects extravaganza. This tended to produce a lot of unjustly negative reviews, but probably made the movie reviews more entertaining to read than they would’ve been otherwise.

Anyway, in that spirit, I present the following review of Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below. While those who know me well struggle to regain their composure, let me explain to the rest of you: Contrary to the first guess of a commenter, I’m one of the whitest guys on the planet. I’m not much of a rap fan (though I do firmly believe in the Two Good Songs theory)– as noted with regard to this very album, I don’t even like dance music. So the idea that I would buy a rap (double) album, let alone attempt to review it is probably almost as amusing as the image of me in a Mini Cooper…

I ended up buying this for three reasons. First, it got very good reviews in all the music magazines, so it’s at least critically respected rap. Second, thanks to my recent hoops exploits, I had a gift certificate from Best Buy that I could blow on a couple of CD’s. Third, and most important, it passed the critical Three Good Songs threshold the day I saw the video for “Roses” while channel-surfing (the songs in question were “Roses,” “Hey Ya” and “The Way You Move,” for those keeping score at home).

So, what did I think? Well, it’s a weird couple of records (technically, it’s a double album, but they’re different enough that I’ll treat them separately). The first disc, Speakerboxxx is pretty much a straight rap record (at least insofar as I can identify such), while the second, The Love Below, is trying very hard to be a Marvin Gaye album from another dimension. There’s really not a lot of connection between the two, aside from a few backing vocal appearances by Andre 3000 on the Speakerboxxx songs, and the very odd Big Boi rap interlude in “Roses.”

The Speakerboxxx disc starts off pretty rough, at least for me. “Ghettomusick” manages to combine pretty much everything I dislike about rap songs– backing music that sounds like it was generated by hacking a Super Mario game from 1990, several extended samples that seem to have dropped in from a completely different song, Big Boi’s inordinate fondness for spelling out words. The next couple of songs are better, but not by much, and on first listen, I was beginning to fear I’d wasted my fake money.

It improves dramatically right around “The Way You Move,” though, and sustains some reasonable momentum through the next few songs. “The Rooster” has a great hook, and “Bust” is pretty good. “War” is a bit of a misfire– a little too complicated for its own good– but “Church” has a sort of doofy charm (a comment which would no doubt get my ass kicked in person, but it’s meant well), and it carries on reasonably well from there. The music never really loses that Nintendo quality, but Big Boi’s delivery is actually kind of interesting to listen to, and the best parts of the lyrics are pretty clever. There’s one guest appearance (Cee-Lo on “Reset”) that’s a little too Dr. Evil to take seriously, but everything after “The Way You Move” is pretty solid. Not entirely my thing, but there are a few songs I like enough to consider putting on a mix tape, and I can understand how people could really get into it.

Then there’s The Love Below. If you took copies of Let’s Get It On and Midnight Love, and collided them at high speed with Prince’s Greatest Hits and the previous disc, you might expect this to emerge from the rubble. On some levels, it’s a major improvement over Speakerboxxx, at least by my standards, in that it features music that sounds like it was made by actual instruments. In places, though, it’s some of the weirdest shit I’ve ever bought.

The inclusion of weird little interlude tracks isn’t unique by any means– there are half a dozen on the Speakerboxxx disc, and I dimly recall something similar from Train’s Ice Cube tapes back in the early 90’s– but this record takes the form to new heights, if that’s the word. You’ve got weird prayers, fan mail, and internal monologues, mixed up with a bizarre little Vaudeville routine. It’s really sort of puzzling. “God” is sort of amusing, and “Where Are My Panties” isn’t too awful, but I have no idea what “Good Day, Good Sir” is doing here, or anywhere else. And “My Favorite Things?” What?

On the brighter side, though, the tracks that are actual songs feature some great stuff. “Hey Ya” is still catchy, and “Roses” is a great tune (people named “Caroline” just can’t really catch a musical break, though, can they?). “Happy Valentine’s Day” and “Behold a Lady” are strange, but play the same basic role as the “God Is Love” and “Save the Children” tracks off What’s Going On— out of context, they’d be impossibly dorky, but taking the album as a whole, they’re weirdly brilliant. “Spread” is a great song for those who think Prince is a bit too subtle when it comes to sexual innuendo, and there’s a long run of short songs near the end that are all pretty good.

I could do without “She Lives in My Lap” and “Vibrate,” but pretty much everything that isn’t a bizarre interlude is actually a good song. But what a weird collection of stuff those interludes are. Listening to these discs, it’s a little hard to see how these two guys even find stuff to talk about, let alone manage to record albums together.

Anyway, the two discs together turned out to be about what I expected. I expected to hate more of the Speakerboxxx songs and like more of the tracks on The Love Below, but on the whole, it’s pretty good. This isn’t going to get me to run right out and build up a huge rap collection, but there’s some good stuff here. I wish I knew what was up with the bizarre interludes, though.

(Originally posted to Uncertain Principles.)

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About Chad Orzel