The road to Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty was long, arduous, and mercilessly convoluted. By now, you’ve likely read all about its knotty development, so I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say it involved four years, multiple record labels, and a whole lot of gritty resolve. It’s a wonder this thing has arrived at all. More wondrous, though, is how uncomplicated the damn thing sounds, given its shaky existence. Instead of muddling its focus, the time and effort spent tooling and retooling the album has imbued it with a wild-eyed precision. News flash: Antwan Patton is a secret perfectionist. He’s gotta be. Only someone willing to devote his entire self and soul to a project could feasibly churn out something with such mind-boggling attention to detail.
Most people would have you believe that Big Boi was Outkast’s levelheaded straight man: the Larry Appleton to André Benjamin’s Balki Bartokomous, the Kenan to Dré’s Kel. In fact, the truth was always more complex. Big’s half of 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below showcased a madman of another kind, one more fascinated with pulsating space-bass synths and unflinchingly taut wordplay than celestial imagery and manifest genre-bending. The essential difference between the two dudes is that Dré looks ever-outward for inspiration while Big looks deep into hip-hop and stares stubbornly into its hidden third eye.
Sir Lucious is the luminous result of that exploration. Though Dré is mostly in absentia, it is in many ways the apex of what Outkast has been doing for years. At the least, it’s the best thing to come out of the Dungeon Family camp in some time. While Speakerboxxx contained more than its share of forgettable filler, Sir Lucious is all but hiccup-free, exceptionally consistent in its mad musical mission. Each track on the record is an explosive standalone statement within a greater unifying framework; it’s an album, but these songs are pipe bombs.
As lyrically nimble as Big Boi proves to still be, it’s the producers who initially shine. Organized Noize bring their A-game on tracks like the Sleepy Brown/Joi collaboration “Turns Me On” or “Fo Yo Sorrows,” which features a rejuvenated Too Short and George Clinton’s first ’Kast-related cameo since Aquemini’s “Synthesizer.” On that track, a paranoid Clinton waxed clairvoyant about laptops and lap dances; here, he is an unapologetically dirty old space hobo who doesn’t much fret about that triflin’ ish anymore. “Don’t need no girlfriend/ Just need my dope,” he intones over an instantly classic Noize beat, all bubbling synths and wailing guitars.
And, goddamn, some of these tracks are straight-up club bangers. The Scott Storch-helmed “Shutterbugg” is one of the most incendiary things I’ve heard in years (listen to that beast of a beat!), a deviously ebullient three-minute madhouse that is impossible to listen to without a silly Cheshire cat grin. Recently, Big put on a surprise free concert at a Shriner’s temple auditorium here in Atlanta (no big deal; he does stuff like that). When he launched into the just-leaked “Shutterbugg,” the place went absolutely apeshit. It’s that kind of jam. It should be everywhere this summer.
And talk about a one-two punch: second only to “Shutterbugg” in artistic advantage — and first in grandiosity — “General Patton” is a huge, hungry beast of a song that unapologetically destroys everything in its path. Big’s indictment of young rap culture is acerbic: ”We come in peace but some of y’all niggas come in greed/ Glutton, fuckin’ up the game like ice, heroin or speed.” Elsewhere, “Tangerine” melds old ATL with new; T.I. sounds absolutely keyed-up, excitedly name-dropping ’Kast’s first album and delivering one of the best verses he’s done in a minute. “You Ain’t No DJ” finds Big further expounding on the state of rap’s union alongside young southern talent Yelawolf: “Your DJ ain’t no DJ, he just make them fuckin’ mixtapes/ Your DJ ain’t no DJ, he just hit that instant replay.” It’s Sir Lucious’ sole Outkast reunion, and André 3000 is only behind the boards. But it’s a testament to Big’s presence that he is barely missed.
Big Boi brings out the best in his guest stars. Even Jamie Foxx sounds like he’s never tried harder (on the sleek “Hustle Blood”), and Janelle Monáe manages to top herself on the spacious “Be Still,” delivering a sparkling chorus that even seems to put Big in a state of awe. He effectively cedes the spotlight to Monáe on the track, and for good reason: everything the woman touches seems to sparkle in a particularly honest way. Big knows — after all, he was instrumental in getting Monáe seen and heard — and it shows.
This is one of Sir Lucious’ main strengths, and really why it carries so much weight as a singular entity; while so many hotshot rappers let their own egos drag them around by the dick, Big knows when to hold back and allow the strengths of others to carry a song. As such, the shimmering player’s anthem “Shine Blockas” features a resurgent Gucci Mane delivering a raspy centerpiece hook and one of his trademark adroit verses over a midnight backing track that all but paints a picture of the industrially gorgeous Atlanta skyline. The gold top of the Bank of America building never glittered so bright.
Since ’Kast’s heyday, hip-hop has changed exponentially. And if there is a complaint to be lodged with Sir Lucious, it’s that Big devotes so much time to lambasting today’s “Lollipop”-hop culture; it borders, at select moments, on the fuddy-duddy. But it’s hard to argue that when most of what he’s saying is true. And in a fast-moving, mixtape-driven climate, it’s frighteningly rare to see someone release something so deliberate. Sir Lucious is meticulous in every way, down to every snare hit, every guest spot, every inter-song skit (less dumb wadding, by the way, than deranged hilarity). Because of all this, Sir Lucious feels out of time and place. Somehow, though, it feels less like a look back than a snapshot of what might have been. And let me tell you, this alternate universe is a hell of a place.