A benefit of being an O.G. is that you can expand your musical horizons without fear of losing credibility. Fans are going to be willing to give your change in direction a chance and listen with an open mind, while artists in your preferred genre won’t be so quick to deride your non-traditional leap.
Antwan André Patton, A.K.A. Big Boi, A.K.A. Daddy Fat Sax, is not pained by the anxiety of influence. On his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors he enlists a pair of acts more used to weaving computerized dreamscapes than serving as the backdrop for someone’s rhymes.
The first, indie psych pop duo Phantogram, prevents “Objectum Sexuality” from devolving into a futile ladies’ jam by crafting a self-reflexive hook (It’s all you want these days cause you feel nothing inside / You know there’s nothing wrong, but you’ve been wondering why) that works in opposition to Patton’s explicit confessions. The duo also produced the track, opting for a multilayered, synthesized approach that stays as true to the funk of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as it does to personalizing Southern Hip Hop, a subgenre known for its posing and the at times numbing similarity of its beats and lyrics.
The second, Swedish electro quartet Little Dragon, feature on “Descending” and “Thom Pettie,” a dirty ditty produced by long-time Outkast collaborator and Grammy-winning producer Chris Carmouche (Album of the Year, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2004). Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano’s short and sweet contribution lends a gospel edge to this otherwise formulaic flossing platform.
Compared to “Pettie,” the regurgitated “In The A” feels conservative and out of place because Vicious isn’t about going hard (definition number 3), it’s about looking inward. Despite T.I. and Luda’s strong cameos, the track falls flat for not eschewing the braggadocio and bombastic production that is their comfort zone, even though Patton and his cohorts have earned the right to let their guards down whenever they please. Luckily, deviations from Vicious’ meditative, unrushed aesthetic (including “Mama Told Me”) are both minimal and forgettable; and forgivable as well, as we’ll see later on.
“CPU,” featuring Phantogram, is a love song whose chimes and buzzy synths dial in on a vulnerable sense of longing born from always being on the road. It starts out like a hipster 80’s reimagining, one that’ll reach out and tap your feet til they learn what’s good for them; then, it morphs into an expression of weakness (against black stereotypes), the purest I’ve ever heard from Patton, whether alongside his virtual brother, André Benjamin, or not. A question “CPU” leaves us with is whether, after however long, we are able to differentiate between a loved one and his or her internet trail.
Phantogram equals Patton’s lyrical depth through straight hook mastery. On “Lines,” Sarah Barthel wails “I’ve wondered how / I’m happier when I lose what I’ve needed all my life,” successfully daring to make an important point about the value of indecision, of letting go of what was once thought as the nearest path to becoming somebody in hip-hop: It may seem like a small achievement, but Barthel is talking about losing interest in material things, and so is Patton. When the princess cut diamonds, fur coats and Escalades no longer matter, he says, one’s mind spends all its energy on identifying “the dangers in the circle of angels,” a circle the battle-worn rapper now frequents with caution, having once thought, like many newcomers to the game, that it contained friends loyal beyond questioning.
I’m not exactly displeased about the “contractual obligations” that prevented André Benjamin, A.K.A. André 3000, from appearing on this album. Let’s face it, if Benjamin is the strange half of Outkast that drops the commendable “Prototype” as a single, Patton is the time-honored half happy to excel within hip-hop’s established parameters: After Benjamin’s “Hey Ya!,” his “The Way You Move” was the second song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in ‘04 (and both songs can take some credit for all the number one’s on that chart until the end of the year coming from African-American artists); its accessibility and elaborateness surpass your average spitta’s crossover club anthem, but it’s still a club anthem, doomed to not have survived in the public consciousness a mere eight years since dropping.
However, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors feels immune to such a fate. The principle that informs it, broader than genre or an experienced ear, is a willingness to collaborate with an indie music scene Outkast never really had to find a place in after signing with LaFace as teenagers in ’92. And such a collaboration required of Patton that he make room for sharing his personal imperfections, which only became more arresting themes once conveyed through uneven, remarkably concrete, form-mimics-content song structures: this is why any review that faults Vicious for lack of cohesion fails to understand that the album sounds like the cautious self-actualization that pervades it.
In a way, Big Boi is a new artist, risking emotional openness for the first time, hoping for a response that’ll have little to do with platinum certifications or his decorated professional past.