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Big Boi (Courtesy photo)
New releases by Outkast and Puffy pit post-hip-hop prophets vs. urban-American idols

Outkast is all about evolution. Since Andre "Dre" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton emerged from Georgia in 1994 with their profound debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic, hip-hop has never really been the same. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic altered the perceptions of Southern rap music as the "freaknic" of hip-hop and ultimately went platinum. Outkast has since released four more albums and sold more than 15 million records worldwide. With each disc, the duo has proven that growth and maturity have a place within the genre, and can occur without sacrificing the music's urgency and fire.

Outkast's first two albums featured torrid lyricism laced with ghetto consciousness and driven by the sleepy, Southern-fried production of Organized Noize (Rico Wade, Pat Brown, and Ray Murray). Along with Organized Noize, Goodie Mob, Witchdoctor, Cool Breeze, and Lil'Will, the duo formed the Dungeon Family, a crew whose spirituality stood in stark contrast to the Dirty South aesthetic of the day. Outkast's second album, 1996's Atliens, simmered in dank, homespun beats that defined the crew's absorbing, new Atlanta sound. The hypnotic "Elevators (Me & You)" raised the bar for commercial rap singles and featured the classic line "I live by the beat like you live check to check/If you don't move your feet, then I don't eat, so we like neck to neck."

On their next two albums, 1998's Aquemini and 2000's Stankonia, Dre and Big Boi took over the production duties themselves, and Outkast officially joined the ranks of RUN-DMC, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. as one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all-time. With stirring, politicized tracks like "Liberation," "Rosa Parks," and "Return of the 'G,'" Aquemini remains the group's masterpiece, while Stankonia was a quirky, lighter record that matched subversive, digital-funk soundscapes with a sly sense of humor.

Outkast's unorthodox latest release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a double album essentially designed as a pair of solo debuts. A lot of Speakerboxxx, Big Boi's disc, harkens back to the days of the group's first album, complete with "Player's Ball" vocals and 808 gospel. Aside from Outkast's recent Greatest Hits package, Speakerboxx is easily the most accessible record of the group's career, even including cuts with Atlanta's Ludacris and Lil' Jon & the East Side Boyz, as well as the omnipresent Jay-Z. The album is also a Dungeon Family reunion with appearances by members old and new, including Sleepy Brown, Killer Mike, Goodie Mob, and Slimm Calhoun, who keep the lyrical content in prime form.

Dre (Courtesy photo)
By comparison, The Love Below, Dre's disc, is the most ambitious album released by any MC, and the most uncontrived portal between Prince and hip-hop since D'Angelo's Voodoo. Tracks like "Prototype," "Pink & Blue," and "She's Alive" flourish with hints of the Purple One's falsetto, and collectively, the album announces the emergence of Andre 3000, Dre's post-hip-hop persona.

On the other side of the hip-hop coin, there is Da Band, the latest offering from Sean "Puffy" Combs and Bad Boy. Over two past two seasons, the second installment of MTV's Making The Band series documented the lives of six young black artists from across the nation. Selected from a pool of more than 40,000 applicants, Ness from Philly, Freddrick from Miami, Sara from Detroit, Young City from New Orleans, and Babs and Dylan from Brooklyn are a pretty likeable bunch.

The first thing that strikes you about their debut, Too Hot for T.V., is how hungry these young MCs are and how good Puffy's money can sound, i.e. how consistently stellar the production is. Bad Boy hasn't sounded this formidable since Biggie's Life After Death, which is largely due to the hitmen behind the boards (Tony Dofat, Wyclef Jean, and the Trackmasters). Despite some setbacks, (the tracks are sometimes inconsistent and Sara and Dylan frequently sound out of place), the popularity of the show should help Too Hot for T.V. sell millions of records. Of course, that means Puffy will be lacing his pockets with more of our cash. •

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