“Divine flows, the radio got y’all like zombies/Come alive hoes, like a litter full of puppies/Or a baby with a onesie on, your old lady clumsy.” Those are real lines from “The Thickets,” the second track off Big Boi’s latest non-Outkast solo record, Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors, and they reveal quite a bit about where the rapper and producer is coming from nowadays: Mainly, he doesn’t care. That doesn’t mean he’s not trying; Antwon Patton is by most accounts a serious workaholic, and as a rapper he’s almost incapable of writing a verse that’s not at least phonetically impressive. It means he doesn’t care what you, me or anyone else thinks about this record. He’s rapping about puppies, babies and old ladies. He’s teaming up with Phantogram, Little Dragon and the dude from Wavves. I don’t think Big Boi is trying to impress anyone, except maybe Kate Bush.
Yes, the tracklist is schizophrenic and terrifying from a distance, like your used VHS copy of ATL was forced to mate with a Gossip Girl soundtrack. But what distinguishes this record from other guest-spot-heavy, major label rap monstrosities is its dogged earnestness, its impeccable attention to detail and its goofy-ass weirdness. Sure, it’s all over the place, but it’s not exactly chasing radio trends or pandering to a specific demographic, unless the kids are suddenly really into breathy electro-pop-rap and smooth-R&B-funk-fusion. Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors is the work of a genuinely eccentric artist who’s earned the chance to fuck around a little bit. It rarely feels urgent, but dad-rap rarely is.
Compared to Big Boi’s previous efforts, the beats on the album are frantic and fragmented rather than the patient and luxurious palette of 2010′s Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son Of Chico Dusty or the precise and militant sound of 2003′s Speakerboxxx. For example, the absurdly named “Thom Pettie” starts as a drawled-out, burping, minimal synth track, but then it makes room for a vamping vocal hook from Little Dragon before exploding in a heavily processed butt-rock guitar solo—then Killer Mike shows up for a verse ’cause why the hell not?
The song typifies a lot of the record’s problems: It has one slightly goofy but possibly fun hook (“Tom Petty that ho”), then it quickly abandons that for five or six less compelling ideas. The same could be said of the album’s chintzy, R&B-meets-chiptune Kelly Rowland collaboration (“Mama Told Me”) or the skate-punk-meets-bubblegum-whistle-pop Wavves pairing (“Shoes For Running”). That’s not to say these tracks don’t have bizarre and ear-wormy moments—you gotta appreciate the way Big Boi morphs brat-doofus Nathan Williams’s snotty, petulant vocals into a souped-up take on the kids-choir-singing-the-hook hip-hop cliche—but they’re given very little room to build or stretch out. Also, everything just sounds tinkered with and fussed over, like the whole album was built out of K’NEX by a team of overachieving middle schoolers in the gifted program.
Then again, when it works, it’s pretty damn good. On the sensual synth-pop cut “Objectum Sexuality,” which finds Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel singing over a dreamy guitar loop, Big Boi sounds totally invigorated, both musically and hormonally as he tosses off boasts like, “My music sounds so good, it’s almost like we’re having sex.” Barthel provides vocals to two other tracks (sultry dance throwaway “CPU” and the A$AP Rocky-featuring emo-noir “The Lines”), and her lithe, airy delivery is a subtle fit with Big Boi and frequent collaborator/engineer Chris Carmouche’s penchant for starry-eyed club textures and ambient coos.
The production work does wonders for some lackluster songwriting: Even the lovelorn, borderline narcoleptic Kid Cudi collab (“She Hates Me”) eventually got stuck in my head. Then there’s the album’s one certified banger, “In The A,” which seems to exist mostly to prove to the naysayers that Big Boi could crank out a whole album of giant, pummeling blockbusters if he wanted to; he’s just not that into it. The track doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of Sir Lucious‘s Gucci Mane-assisted “Shine Blockas” or countless Outkast classics, but it almost makes up for it with a ridiculous horn sample, some regional pride and a fantastic Ludacris verse.
While it’s tempting to psychoanalyze Big Boi’s more out-there production choices as further attempts to try to rebrand himself as Outkast’s true oddball or just an attempt to fill the skinny void left by Andre 3000′s retreat from the spotlight, this album feels like the creation of a joyful and perhaps a little over-excited creative mind. His rapping (and even some singing) on the record is impeccable whether he’s lamenting his father’s absence, seducing a woman or just assuring us of his own greatness. Despite its excesses and missteps, the album gives Big Boi room to be Big Boi. It’s the work of a confident artist, a grown man who’s paid his dues, earned his place in history and now has time to play with his toys. Maybe it’s not the full-on comeback album that people were hoping for, but it’s a lot more fun than a Gillette commercial.