A Band Apart
OutKast's multimedia swan song.
Over their 12 years as recording artists, OutKast has defied hip-hop's conventions with brilliant ease. André 3000 and Big Boi debuted as two ingénues from the uncool recesses of the South, then evolved into yin and yang oddballs who pushed their music toward the fringe, time and again. But, in 2006, OutKast—with their separate photo shoots, tour buses, and album sides—rarely feels real at all. Instead they are described (by everyone but them) as a marriage of convenience, a mutually beneficial business agreement, or just another case of best friends grown apart. Now comes Idlewild, a film and album (but, confusingly, not a soundtrack) that appear to be the duo's swan song. Both feed the perception that OutKast—the arrangement, the music, the everything—is deeply weird and not long for this world.
Throughout a career that stretches all the way back to middle school, Big Boi and André have embraced their dialectical tension, bisecting themselves as "the player and the poet." Over the first four albums, the pair thrived on this enigmatic contrast. In time, as the fork widened and the two settled into roles as Big Boi—the pragmatist with the stripper pole in his house—and André—the sensitive, fashionable aesthete who name-checked Chekhov and the Smiths—it became difficult to keep up with OutKast's coherence. All of this backstory makes Idlewild a fascinating experience, a metaphor for the state of OutKast. Slimmed to a synopsis, the movie appears to be yet another rapper-driven "hip-hop film," wherein a virtuous but conflicted protagonist attempts to escape the conditions of his or her life through some climactic act of art, violence, or both. Idlewild tells the story of two best friends making last-ditch efforts of escape, but with the kind of surreal wideness of vision that powers OutKast's music. Frenetic and outlandish, colorful, collision-happy, and witty: It is history written in hip-hop.
The film is set in mythical Idlewild, Ga., an almost-reconstructed Southern town that seems to have escaped Jim Crow but not the nefariousness of backroom patronage or rigid intraracial hierarchies. The year is 1935: the year Georgia repealed Prohibition, catching up with the 21st Amendment; the prizefighter Joe Louis was slugging his way upward; jazz and the Great Depression were happening; the great migration was drawing African-Americans northward; the dying days of the Harlem Renaissance; World War II was just around the corner; there is no New Deal in these parts.
Within this fraught moment are Rooster (Big) and Percival (André), dramatizations of the actors' real-life personalities. Bonded by a childhood love of music, the pair represent a contrast in styles as young adults: Rooster is the charismatic, slick-talking lothario and family man who stars nightly at the Church, Idlewild's premier juke joint; Percival is the shy, romantic mortician's son, too timid to do much with the sheet music (a likely nod to Prince's Purple Rain) he clutches and slaves over.
At its best, Idlewild feels like the kind of wild juxtaposition of history and style that hip-hop has enabled. The scenes in the Church are chilling: Jitterbugging couples heave each other across the room, only to break and pause when one among them dashes to the center and evokes a 1980s B-boy freeze. Meanwhile, onstage, amid fire-breathing girls and a band that looks like it was around for the birth of jazz, Big Boi raps. The entire sequence is a dizzying, beautiful collapse of the 20th-century African-American experience in five vibrant, perfectly choreographed minutes.
Percival is a useful insight into André's current state: an artist who is shrinking from the light of center stage and instead hoping to time-travel backward through his music. For this, André is often feted. But it is fitting that Big Boi's Rooster anchors the film's most exciting scenes, that the crowd's delirium is directed toward his character as he raps some 45 years too early. It redeems hip-hop as something futuristic and bizarre, even if the music and its fans take that fact for granted today.
OutKast's limitless skills as rappers is something that only the real-life André seems willing to forfeit, an ambivalence that adds intrigue to the film but divides the album. While it can be a delight to see a closeted free spirit and a brash showman banter on-screen, it's not as much fun hearing them fake their way through a record together. Idlewild the album is an occasion for lamentation, a merely okay work from a pair who had reshaped the possibilities of hip-hop with each new outing. Little of it appears in the film; rather, the album shades in bits and pieces of Rooster and Percival's story lines. Despite moments of brilliance, André's attempt to retell the Idlewild story through bluesy jaunts and off-kilter jazz sketches pales alongside the free-association joy of Big Boi's half. When they do rap together, as on "Mighty 'O'," André spends much of his share admitting his own boredom, dampening down the song's frolicking organ blares and pattering drumrolls. It's an album without a center, with the ho-hum André making the zealous Big Boi seem quaint, even tacky, by comparison.
I recently saw a rare non-Photoshopped picture of OutKast together. It appeared that André was wearing a raccoon tail out the back of his flood pants—this seemed perfectly acceptable to me. As the hip-hop culture around them has become more and more unintentionally surreal (one word: pinky-rings), OutKast has come to symbolize two methods of dealing. One dreams of a space in between Prince and A Love Supreme and scavenges for life and color beyond hip-hop, while the other continues rapping, guarding the torch that represents one of the most startling cultural developments of our lifetime; one escapes into the distant past, while the other looks forward. The tension they once thrived on having grown too great, it is likely that Idlewild represents the duo's last attempt to merge their respective passions. It feels like both a last stop and a return to that magical origin. Idlewild, Ga.: a small, funky, rural outpost that exists on no maps but their own.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.