When I first read the tracklisting for this album I thought that it had to be a mixtape, that Big Boi was sampling the likes of Phantogram, Little Dragon and Wavves. After all, it would be very unusual for a hip-hop artist to actually collaborate with any of these artists. But, I was wrong. Turns out Big Boi’s record collection resembles mine.
I’ll admit that this album takes a while to get into. Even if you don’t get the deluxe edition, it’s still 14 tracks. (But you should get the deluxe edition. You should always get the deluxe edition. Otherwise, it’s like you’re not getting the whole album.) Regardless of which version you get, it’s still a lot to wrap your head around. In addition to collaborating with the artists mentioned above, there are roughly a dozen other artists on board. And many of these beats aren’t your typical hip-hop, the album, which had several producers, frequently shifting to trip-hop to electro-hop to R&B and so on. At first listen, it’s sure to sound like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. But, the more you sample the goodies, the sweeter they taste. Ultimately, these cookies are gourmet.
Often times when you have a rap album with various guests it will sound like half of the guests just phoned it in, the guests’ lyrics having nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the song. Like they’re just sending off a random verse, a studio out-take or something, instead of actually collaborating with the artist whose song they’re appearing on. That is not the case with this album. It has over a dozen guests, but in every single instance the guests’ lyrics fit the rest of the song. These tracks all seem to be true collaborations.
I’m especially fond of the collaborations with the electro/indie-pop duo Phantogram. In the case of “Objectum Sexuality,” singer Sarah Barthel turns Big Boi’s blunt lyrics about sex into something reflective, singing, “It’s all you want these days cause you feel nothing inside, you know there’s nothing wrong, but you’ve been wondering why.” And her lyrics in the song “Lines” are even more thought-provoking: “I’ve wondered how I’m happier when I lose what I’ve needed all my life.” She sings all of these lyrics in a haunting manner that leaves them lingering in your head long after you’ve heard the songs. And, speaking of “Lines,” A$AP Rocky delivers a slick, noteworthy verse there. Sample: “Man gave us laws and God gave us time.”
Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel also sings on a third track, “CPU,” which would seem to be about masturbation. “And it’s you that’s on my computer screen, cause it’s you that’s on my mind,” she sings. This time her vocals aren’t haunting, they’re simply upbeat pop. Some of Big Boi’s vocals on the track are computerized: “As I scroll through the centerfolds, wishing that the screen was three dimensional, I know it doesn’t seem too conventional, but it’ll do until I get you in the physical.”
Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings on three tracks as well. The first is the very trippy “Thom Pettie” where Big Boi’s vocals are slowed down and otherwise distorted. But Yukimi sings in her normal, simply beautiful voice: “We shining like the sun and moon, all of your wishes falling through.” She sounds beautiful *and* haunting on “Descending,” a song about death. “If ya don’t know me by now,” she sings, over and over again, slightly sadder each time. Big Boi’s vocals there are more spoken word than rap: “The pain when I’m thinking about it, dad, I will not fall, even tired and all, Grandmamas, great grandmama, they gone, my daddy’s gone.” It’s honest, stream-of-consciousness stuff. Yukimi’s third appearance on the album is on one of the deluxe edition bonus tracks, a sex romp called “Higher Res.”
There are many other songs on the album that deserve mention. The first song on the album, “The Thickets,” has a simple, old school beat, and Big Boi does some fine rapping, but it’s the hook by Sleepy Brown that makes it so intoxicating, his tone and inflections like Bobby Womack on codeine. Likewise, KiD CuDi sings a smooth hook over the punchy beats of “She Hates Me.” And Kelly Rowland delivers a fine hook on “Mama Told Me,” which samples “When Doves Cry” by Prince.
One of the album’s strongest tracks is the only song without any special guests (except for the intro), “Apple Of My Eye,” a vibrant, jumpy song produced by Mr. DJ. Actually, Rap Genius — a very popular rap lyrics site — credits someone named Jake for the hook, which is pretty smooth, hence my mentioning him.
Finally, Big Boi delivers his strongest, dead-on vocals on the album on “Gossip,” which is another deluxe edition bonus track. Lyrically, the song really fits with the album’s title, so it’s odd that it was relegated to being a bonus track. One of a few small complaints I have about the album, but, really, the good outweighs the bad tenfold so it’s not worth getting into those.
Perhaps I should have written more about Big Boi’s contributions to the album. After all, it’s his record. And he does some great work. Some truly brilliant work. His rhymes, the way he delivers them — he’s grade A, on the top of his game here. But the album puts much emphasis on his guests, so I should think it’s only fitting that I’ve done so here as well. -Michael McCarthy