A case for Big Boi as one of hip hop's GOATs.
In this new series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, and DJ Quik. Today, we're going to bat for Big Boi.
Whenever thinking about the way perception's often altered by association, I always remember this one FoxTrot comic strip (which I can't locate online). In it, the family's father, Roger, brags about his boss requesting that they stand next to each other in the office Christmas picture. Great, Roger thinks (I'm paraphrasing here), He must view me as his right-hand man. The reality, however, is much sadder. We cut to a scene of the boss revealing that he uses Roger's wrinkled tie, un-ironed suit, baldness, and sizable paunch to look better by comparison. I always pick my ugliest, most disheveled employee to pose next to me.
Positive qualities are enhanced when contrasted with negative ones, but the opposite's also true: positive qualities are diminished when contrasted with other positive qualities. Look at Jordan and Pippen. Pippen was an all-star, and on most other teams, he would've been the dominant player. Next to Jordan though, he always looked like a sidekick. That's the dynamic often ascribed to OutKast, the most acclaimed rap duo of all time. André 3000 is a world-class talent and a fixture in Top 5 discussions, and beyond that, a flashy, volatile individual— he was born to be an enigmatic icon. Big Boi always looks straightforward and workmanlike by comparison. Just by virtue of not pitch-shifting his vocals, wearing blonde wigs, or covering a song from The Sound of Music on his half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he seems like a conservative, fundamentals-first artist.
Thanks to almost a decade's worth of adventurous solo work, the ill-informed perception of Big Boi as a skilled rapper who was uninventive and mostly coasted on the achievements Three Stacks has been definitively disproven. But even during his tenure in OutKast, Daddy Fat Sax was doing things most rappers either couldn't or wouldn't, while still staying more earthbound and tied to rap's history than his skyward-gazing counterpart. Beyond that, he even out-rapped 3000 every so often. To view it one way, Big Boi didn't need all of André's glitz and conversation-starting exploits to pull his own weight in the best rap duo of all time. He achieved greatness by more standard means, and despite that rendering him a bit less "influential" than 3000, it suggests that Big Boi would've succeeded in any circumstances, region, or era. His talent is one hundred percent gimmick-less.
There's a reason that vaunted NY lyricists like Jay-Z, Slick Rick, and Raekwon were quick to co-sign Big Boi: his narrative-heavy style was similar to their own. In an era when the South was still fighting for recognition from the rest of rap, he was one of the first Southern rappers to make such clear in-roads with established stars from hip hop's birthplace. Raekwon's appearance on Aquemini was all Big Boi's doing, Jay snatched him and Killer Mike up for Blueprint 2's "Poppin' Tags" and then returned the favor on Speakerboxxx's "Flip Flop Rock," and Slick Rick tapped him for a song on his 1999 album The Art of Storytelling, which may or may not have been named after a pair of Aquemini tracks. Rappers from a more traditional lineage saw something of themselves in Big Boi's ability to create scenes and relay street tales. Due to their interest, you could argue that Big Boi did far more than André to make sure that the rest of hip hop knew that the South had something to say, to borrow a phrase from 3000's famous 1995 Source Awards speech.
On tracks like "Decatur Psalm," "West Savannah," and "SpottieOttieDopaliscious," Big Boi illustrated stories with painstaking detail, recounting run-ins with the law, his upbringing, and an encounter with a woman who moved like a "brown stallion horse with skates on," respectively. Beyond his flow and wordplay, which were always tight and impeccable, it was his ability to paint picturess with just a few well-placed descriptors that separated him from the rest of his Dungeon Family brethren.
Big Boi was the first OutKast member to drop solo material, with a two-track run in the middle of Aquemini ("Slump" into "West Savannah") that didn't feature André at all. Along with Speakerboxxx, these tracks suggest that his vision was much more straightforward and hip hop-centric than André's increasingly jazzy, psychedelic intentions, but since the duo's dissolution, Big Boi's let his fondness for other genres show through. He featured rock band Vonnegutt on Sir Lucious Left Foot, indie artists Little Dragon and Wavves on Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, and even formed a group, Big Grams, with electropop duo Phantogram. While he also got more adventurous within hip hop during this span (Speakerboxxx engaged with G-funk, "Shutterbugg" played around with Bay Area sounds), it's these collaborations with the indie world that have simultaneously expanded Big Boi's reach and watered down his legacy.
Allow me to make another historical comparison to explain André and Big Boi's contrasting images. In his excellent book Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, Steven Hyden included a chapter on Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, both regarded as two of the best blues-based rock guitars of all-time, but who also have very different reputations in pop culture. Compared to Hendrix's alien cool, Hyden wrote, "out of all the boomer-era classic-rockers, Clapton has always seemed the least cool and most disappointing." That's because unlike Hendrix, who died before he could tarnish his legacy, Clapton's gone through many musical phases, some lamer than others, and also gotten sober and mellowed out from his wild younger days. Referencing Clapton's acoustic, bossa nova-inflected '90s version of his '70s track "Layla," Hyden writes that Hendrix's legacy is more intact because we'll never hear "Purple Haze" get such a middle-aged treatment. André 3000 isn't dead, but he has largely kept himself out of the public eye since OutKast's breakup (and actually played Hendrix in a recent biopic). Big Boi, on the other hand, has ventured off into other genres with varying degrees of success. "To me," Hyden wrote about Clapton, "he’s the ultimate signifier of what we all go through as we mature," citing the new version of "Layla" as preferable to the heroin diet Clapton was on during his musical prime. "Clapton embraced lameness in order to survive, as we all do."
As far as we know, Big Boi never had to overcome a crippling addiction problem, but his post-OutKast survival has depended on a similar embrace of music that may not be across-the-board "lame," but is certainly diluting his once-crystallized delivery of hard-nosed Southern rap. The better image, in my head at least, is that of Big Boi as a cool uncle. Seeing someone in their 40s go, "Hey kids, you ever heard of Phantogram?" will always be endearing and a little funny, and it's certainly not the action of someone at the top of their game. But hey, Ludacris is washed up doing Fast & Furious movies, T.I. signed Iggy Azalea, and Cee-Lo's revealed himself to be a terrible, weird person, so compared to his peers, Big Boi's middle-aged lameness is not only tolerable, it's a little admirable, at least in the sense that he's still getting to make somewhat inventive rap music. All of this should bolster, not erase, all the good he's done for us. All of the GOATs who have lived (or worked) long enough to pass their primes have made shaky musical choices at one point or another, and even compared to guys like Jay-Z, Nas, and Eminem, Big Boi's post-cool career isn't all that bad. I think his aging process will continue to be graceful, just like his indelible personal style has always been.