Andre Benjamin--you know him as Andre 3000, of the rap duo Outkast--is in daddy mode today. He and his 5-year-old son, Seven (so named because it's a divine and indivisible number), are just back from the Magic Mountain amusement park, and Seven's now zooming around the Hollywood studio where Benjamin's trying to work on a new track and do an interview. Seven lives most of the time in Texas with his mother, the singer Erykah Badu, and while Benjamin would like to see more of him, you get the idea it's been a long day. "We had fun at the park," Benjamin says, keeping a watchful eye on Seven, "but it would've been cool if he'd had someone his own age to hang out with, too. He needs company."
Benjamin, 28, has lucked out in that respect. He and Antwan Patton, a.k.a. Big Boi--who's a daddy three times over--have been collaborators and best buddies for the past decade. "We know each other like brothers," says Patton, also 28, "and we can finish each other's sentences." They met in high school in Atlanta, bonded over both music and fashion--which seems odd now, since Andre's been known to perform in green plaid tights and a turban, while Big Boi sticks to jeans and baseball caps. They both loved such quirky groups as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest--the hippie wing of hip-hop--as well as funk forefathers George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and Outkast has re-created and updated that sound in the four retro-experimental albums it has released since 1994, most notably 2000's Grammy-winning "Stankonia." They've never been your standard-issue hip-hop act. "When I look at the rap videos, it's pretty much the same video over and over,'' Benjamin says. "A bunch of women in swimsuits and the guys rapping about money or jewels. Me and Big Boi wanted to change that."
So nobody should be surprised that Outkast's new album, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," is a bit of a surprise. Rather than an outright collaboration, it's a two-disc set, the first all by the more mainstream Big Boi, the second all by the more experimental Andre. If Big Boi is red beans and rice--you can hear the influence of gospel, funk, even Jimi Hendrix--Andre is a crazy organic salad. (His, not Big Boi's, is the disc with a guest shot by Norah Jones.) Andre is all about emotional turmoil--he still seems to be hurting over his breakup with Badu--while Big Boi is the practical-minded hedonist. (Patton put up a stripper pole in the den of his Atlanta home, and he claims it gets plenty of use.) Taken together, the discs complement each other. But they could just have easily been solo albums. On Outkast's European tour earlier this year, Big Boi and Andre did separate sets, which they say worked out fine. "I carried my weight and so did he," Patton says. But naturally, all this has people wondering if Outkast still exists as anything but a name. "At first it was a little frustrating because people didn't seem to really get it," Patton says. "We were just showing how we'd each grown musically in our own way. Outkast ain't goin' nowhere."
So he says. But though both he and Benjamin insist they're still a duo, something's bound to change. Just for starters, Benjamin wants to take a giant step back from the music business. "I'd like to go back and be a regular guy for a minute," he says. "This whole thing happened when we were so young that while we got a lot, we missed a lot, too." One thing he missed was college, and he's now taking filmmaking classes at USC. For his NEWSWEEK interview, he left the green tights in the closet and put on jeans and an army jacket. "I think this is normal," he says of the outfit. "This is me trying to be the regular guy again. I need that to move on, I think." And then there's Seven. "With a kid, it's a whole new game," he says. "With some time off, I would spend more time with him, 'cause my dad wasn't around at all." Patton sees fatherhood differently. "This is the business we're in," he says. "My work pays for their schools and everything else they need, so I gotta do it. And I love performing. So why would I stop? My first love is music, then my kids. I ain't worried about much else."
If Outkast is really heading for a split-up, Arista Records will take care of the worrying, with some help from the fans. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The new album--which should be their biggest to date--isn't even out till later this month, and the guys are still running their Arista-distributed boutique label, Aquemini, whose name comes from their combined astrological signs. These spiritual twins have been there for each other for a lot of years. So far each has been the other's lucky star.