Revisiting a ‘Prototype’: Outkast’s ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ at 20
Written by B87FM on September 22, 2023
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Look, I’m not saying that Outkast is entirely responsible for the genre-less state of a lot of hip-hop that I hear today, but I definitely think their willingness to indulge their musical curiosities allowed future artists to realize that hip-hop contains multitudes.
Coming off of what was already an ambitious, and hugely successful, undertaking in 2000’s “Stankonia,” I think most fans (myself included ) wondered what direction André 3000 and Big Boi might take their next project. Or, quite honestly, if any new project was coming from the Outkast ever again. André had begun acting and seemed to be interested in other things while Big Boi was recording new material. There are stories about the separate recording sessions for the two artists, some told by engineers at Stankonia Studios, Outkast’s home base, and music executive L.A. Reid, who essentially said that André only finished his half of the album when he realized there was a release date for Big Boi’s “Speakerboxxx” album, leading to the release of the classic “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” double album on Sept. 23, 2003.
The album would garner two hit No. 1 singles in Big Boi’s “The Way You Move” and 3000’s “Hey Ya!”, win three Grammy Awards, including the highly coveted Album of the Year Award and be certified diamond. By all accounts, the two separate albums from the two members of Outkast worked and worked well, and from reading accounts of folks involved, that wasn’t a certainty. On the ground, the streets were also skeptical. For one, I vividly remember that 3000’s more love-themed pop, R&B, funk and jazz mesh with features from Norah Jones and Kelis was loved by some, tolerated by others and outright shunned by a good number of folks, especially in favor of Big Boi’s upbeat combo of funk, hip-hop and features from Jay-Z and Killer Mike. In 2003, arguments and debates via email chains about this album ran rampant.
I loved (and still do) “The Love Below.” I appreciated the musical expressiveness of 3000 and even enjoyed his singing, struggly as it might have been on occasion. While I liked Big Boi’s album, I found myself gravitating, almost exclusively, to “The Love Below.” At some point, I stopped listening to the album with great frequency, but it still remains a landmark work of art to me. But I haven’t listened to either in some time so I figured a 20-year anniversary was a great time to revisit them both. I wondered if they still hit the same for me as they did back in 2003, and whether or not I could hear today’s music in the musical experimentation and risk-taking of both “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”
While I didn’t listen to “Speakerboxxx” as much as “The Love Below,” a point of controversy among several of my friends, the songs I loved on the former are songs that I LOVED, and they hit even harder now to me. Songs like “Ghettomusick,” “Unhappy,” “Bowtie” and even “The Way You Move” still knock with ferocity. In fact, in what was a surprise to me, save for “Prototype” from 3000’s half, they might be my favorite songs on the entire project. The rest of the album, though, still feels the same as it did all those years ago — some good songs with the appropriate amount of slap, but I don’t need to hear them again.
“The Love Below,” on the other hand, while not as exciting as it once was (I chalk some of this up to just how much music has changed; this album was completely left field in 2003, but Black music is so expansive now that it would be judged purely for its quality not how different it was) was still an enjoyable ride. “Roses,” “Spread,” She Lives In My Lap,” “Take Off Your Cool,” and “A Life in the Day of André Benjamin (Incomplete)” are all still amazing songs to me. Along with “Vibrate” and “Pink & Blue” as well. In fact, I think “The Love Below” is a better album because it thematically sticks to the script while being entertaining and creative. I found myself being impressed with what 3000 pulled off with this record, especially at a time when this album was 100% a risk.
Plus, he made “Prototype.” I love this record so much, including the “Where Are My Panties?” interlude that leads into it; it’s so relatable, especially for that time in my life. “Prototype” hits all of the right notes about looking for and maybe finding love over an amazing bass-driven track that is as good, if not better (to me) today than even when it was released. “Prototype,” for me, is the game-changer on this album. It’s the point where it feels like all of 3000’s influences came together perfectly. As part of Outkast’s legacy, the joint albums further prove just how groundbreaking they were as a duo; even if they weren’t working “together,” they agreed on a vision, sharing productions on each other’s half and offering their opinions and feedback. Outkast was still Outkast, an avant-garde group of musicians with a vision that had long left the confines of traditional hip-hop. Who can forget just how far ahead of its time “B.O.B.” was?
I think that’s ultimately what makes “Spearkerboxxx/The Love Below” special. I seriously doubt it gets cited by most as a predecessor to this current crop of hip-hop/R&B, super artsy mix of music we’re getting, but before Kanye West’s “808’s & Heartbreak,” — largely credited with spawning this current wave of hip-hop — Outkast was breaking all of the rules: singing, rapping verses that weren’t quite 16 bars, using spoken word, doing fully vamped-out creations, etc. Outkast started down that road with their sophomore album, “ATLiens” and took it to the highest level on “Aquemini,” and then “Stankonia” proved just how far hip-hop could take it. By the time we got “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” I wondered if maybe their innovations were taken for granted and maybe even underappreciated because it was ahead of its time. Listening 20 years later, I hear the chances they took and the funk they captured. It was a prototype of an album before we had any idea what it was the prototype for.
And now, it’s all up and through your speakerbox.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).
Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.