Contra the romantic cliché, plenty of once beloved artists know a mere absence can’t guarantee renewed affection down the road. You can’t just disappear and come back; you also need to remember who you are in the meantime. Axl Rose spent 13 years working on Chinese Democracy, though when he finally deigned to let his record company release it, he seemed further gone from our platonic ideal of a Guns N’ Roses frontman than at any point during that interim. Over the July 4 weekend, Liz Phair came up for air after a five-year absence with the gonzo, self-released album Funstyle—which, with its purposefully half-assed invocation of Bollywood rhythms and jokey skits, left some of her hardest-core fans (including this one) asking the question “Whaa?” But what about long-MIA acts who’ve kept faith with a core identity, losing the devotion of corporate sponsors but not their fans? A new album from Big Boi, half of the classic rap duo Outkast, suggests that, for them, reanimating the public’s ardor is an easier task.
Sir Lucious Left Foot ... The Son of Chico Dusty was held up by intralabel politics for the intolerable length of three years. (Jive Records had the rights to a new Outkast record as well as solo projects by the two group members. But according to Big Boi, Jive dragged its feet on Sir Lucious because it was “too artsy,” so he moved his solo act to Def Jam.) Now that it’s finally out, the album confirms what close listeners had already begun to realize during the Outkast-saturated mid-2000s: Big Boi makes the contemporary trappings of hip-hop sound funkier than just about anyone. He will, like many other producers, use a pitch-bent vocal hook (as in the chorus of “Shutterbugg”)—but by using a vintage talkbox instead of Auto-Tune software, he manages to communicate an organic soul feeling beyond what’s strictly required for commercial appeal. The overall production sounds up to the minute, but there’s a hint of retro acknowledgment there for the old-school Zapp fans. The same skill in pairing old forms with new ones comes via the hip, high-hat electro rhythms of “Fo Yo Sorrows,” since the song also features an uncommonly sharp scatological rap from George Clinton. (It’s as on point as Dr. Funkenstein has sounded since his appearance on the third disc of a Prince live set that almost nobody heard back in 2002.)
There’s also a lot on Sir Lucious that’s reminiscent of the last couple of Outkast records. Very little about Big Boi sounds different here, aside from the fact that he does not have his partner Andre 3000 to rap with (a contractual tragedy that also appears to be the doing of Jive Records). What has changed is that his fans—many of whom may have found Outkast’s last double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, to be “too much,” or the movie Idlewild a touch precious—may now forgive the Sir Lucious album these very same (venial) sins, given the long wait. Still, it would be unfair to suggest that nostalgia alone makes Big Boi’s album such a welcome addition to the summer-release calendar. Sir Lucious Left Foot would probably have been heralded even if it came out in 2007, or else last winter (as did the leaked—and stunning—single “Shine Blockas”). But given how hard it can be for pop musicians to eject themselves from purgatory with souls recognizably intact, Big Boi’s escape seems especially heavenly.