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Older Skool

Alex Niven

foerBig Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Mercury, 2010

Late last year, the music journalist Sasha Frere-Jones announced the death of hip-hop in an article for the New Yorker. He was certainly not the first to make this sort of claim. Since the end of the so-called golden age of rap (circa 1986-1992) there have been perennial grumbles about generic decline. As far back as 2006, heavyweight New York MC Nas put a marker on the trend (with what one might have thought would have been a definitive finality) by releasing a superb single/album, unambiguously titled Hip Hop Is Dead. As in every other kind of pop music, belatedness is now an unavoidable fact of rap.

Speculations about hip-hop’s historical trajectory notwithstanding, examples of individual brilliance remain fairly thick on the ground. Moreover, following its ‘death’, the genre seems to have entered a phase of neo-classical sophistication. Many of the best albums of recent years have come from older, established figures rather than breakthrough delinquents. 2008 saw the release of Q-Tip’s The Renaissance and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, while 2009 was graced by Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx Pt. II and Mos Def’s magisterial comeback The Ecstatic. Now, in 2010, we can place Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty—the first solo album proper by Outkast member Big Boi—alongside these albums in a new latter-day category: the instantly canonical, mature hip-hop classic.

This is not to say that Sir Lucious is cautiously traditionalist. Far from it. The fiendish synth riffs in intro “Feel Me” might recall Chronic- and Doggystyle-era G-Funk, but this is an isolated moment of derivativeness. More typically, the album offers a sonic palette that is richly innovative without being showily iconoclastic. In Outkast, Big Boi’s achievements have frequently been overshadowed by the theatrics of his partner, André 3000, with Big Boi cast as a phlegmatic, macho antidote to André’s antic disposition. In fact, as many are aware, and as Sir Lucious underlines, Big Boi can do rarefied, orchestral rap-futurism every bit as colourfully as his flamboyant sometime-counterpart.

With a dizzying array of producers (pretty much a different one for each track), Sir Lucious skillfully navigates a course between off-the-wall weirdness and austere pop concision. Opening track “Daddy Fat Sax” combines a sweeping pentatonic melody arranged for an awesome instrumental combo—accordion, strings, vibes—with Big Boi’s aquiline, quick-fire rhyming on the subject of his extravagantly pimped Cadillac (“six woofers and gold amps”!). “Turns Me On” is a sparser, funkier showcase for the effortlessly fluid MCing, while “Be Still” features another gorgeous oriental-sounding hook sung by Janelle Mon√°e, a standout guest appearance in an album with a number of well-judged collaborations (although, interestingly, the André 3000-produced “You Aint No DJ” doesn’t quite come off, suitably bizarre though it may be).

True, Sir Lucious offers microcosmic evidence of wider stagnation in the stylistic evolution of rap. For all the formal variety on offer here, many of the beats seem depressingly monotonous. As with much latter-day hip-hop, the production would have benefited from more organic breaks, and less 21st-century electro artifice. There are pointless blasts of misogyny in the gratuitous (yet mercifully brief) skit sections; and the less said about soulless Jamie Foxx collaboration “Hustle Blood” the better. However, with highlights like the utterly astonishing “Shine Blockas” to balance the books, occasional misfires can be forgiven. Hip-hop’s golden age may be long behind it, but Big Boi and his Sir Lucious persona suggest that, with a continuing preponderance of cultivated, Bowie-esque mavericks operating outside of trend-based, youthful scenes, the genre as a whole will remain in rude health for a good while yet.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at The Oxonian Review.