“Not tryna’ be rude, but having an attitude is counterproductive to being blissful,” raps Andre Patton (aka Big Boi) in the first verse of “Run For Your Life,” the opening song off his Phantogram collaboration EP, Big Grams. This ethos might as well serve as Patton’s mission statement. In an era of aesthetic maximalism (I’m looking at you, Kanye West), Big Boi lets his music do the talking. Rising to prominence as one half of OutKast, it’s precisely this workmanlike attitude that has endeared Patton to fans, but prevented him from becoming the creative breakout star of the group. That privilege was reserved for Andre 3000 of “Hey Ya” and animated television show stardom.
In light of 3000’s preordained star status, it’s fascinating to trace the divergent solo career paths that each OutKast member has taken. After all, “Class of 3000” was cancelled in 2008 and “Hey Ya” can only bring the bar mitzvah-going crowd to its knees for so long. The dichotomous career paths of the rapping duo were made evident once again this fall in a painfully hilarious “Key & Peele” skit about why the group no longer makes music. While Big Boi is portrayed as the sober musician and Andre 3000 the outlandishly dressed, borderline insane auteur, it’s very clear which member of the duo decides whether the OutKast creative machine functions: Andre 3000. If the contention is that Big Boi can’t exist without OutKast, specifically because OutKast can’t exist without Andre 3000, someone forgot to tell Big Boi to quietly fall into irrelevance, like his OutKast counterpart ironically has. After two critically acclaimed solo albums and guest spots with Janelle Monae and on the “Game of Thrones” soundtrack, Big Boi has refused to recede into the comfortable twilight of the musical old-timer. The Big Grams EP is merely the latest iteration of a campaign to keep the spotlight on Patton, or, as he raps in “Fell in the Sun,” “Never fade to black.”
On Big Grams, Big Boi’s collaborative EP with electronic psych pop duo Phantogram, Patton flexes his artistic versatility while preserving his smooth ATL hip-hop sound. Structured around an exploration of the seven deadly sins, with each song representing a different vice, Big Grams flips this concept by exploring the redeeming aspects of each sin. In the process, they create a humanizing and ultimately modestly optimistic impression of the human condition.
“Fell In The Sun,” the EP’s first single, is an ecstatic climax. Amidst up-tempo 808’s and a soulful sax groove, Big Boi waxes poetic on his Atlanta patriotism, tracing the arc of his own career as an artist who “Put Atlanta on the map” and “Busts the sun roof open as beams hit the Braves cap.” Patton’s braggadocio never becomes grating or fails to engage, and is delivered with a knowing wink. If anyone deserves to stake his claim as a hip-hop vanguard, it’s Big Boi.
Phantogram guitarist Josh Carter characterized this collection of tracks as “psyched-out hip-hop,” and the EP meshes the hazy electronica of vocalist Sarah Barthel and Big Boi’s swaggering lyrical dexterity effortlessly. In this vein, Big Grams succeeds because of its refusal to phone in the project and survive on mere star power. Certainly, there are more conventional “Big Boi songs” and “Phantogram songs” on the EP, (“Put It On Her” for the former, “Lights On” for the latter), but the group has actually taken the time to explore how the their individual styles organically coalesce.
As a result, true cohesion emerges on tracks like “Fell In the Sun” and “Goldmine Junkie,” where Barthel and Patton thrillingly rap back and forth, riffing off the softer and tougher aspects of each other’s vocal tones over a twinkling synth beat. Barthel manipulates emotions dynamically, at one moment she yearns submissively for acceptance, at another on songs like “Put It On Her,” a meditation on the sin of lust, she strikes back with force, “She’s just a liar who gets high on rock ‘n’ roll/A rolling stone/She don’t know, she just knows/That I put it on her.”
The few instances that appear forced usually occur when Big Grams attempts to incorporate an entirely new style into the fabric of an already thematically crowded sound. As technically thrilling as Run The Jewels rapper Killer Mike’s verse is on “Born To Shine,” (Ric Flair’in’/Long fur coat wearin’/Rolex rockin’/Silk shirt wearin’), the track languishes in clumsily awkward territory as Phantogram fails to match Mike’s verve. Another forgettable piece is “Drum Machine,” where even a rapid fire Big Boi verse can’t save this misguided Skrillex collaboration.
Big Grams is most successful when it avoids treading too far into the electronic EDM territory of “Drum Machine,” and sticks to the almost paradoxically buoyant psychedelia of “Fell in the Sun.” It represents Big Boi’s latest solo triumph, perhaps a sign he never needed OutKast to succeed in the first place, and the project that could potentially break Phantogram out in the mainstream. Anyone who doubted whether this project would prevail or not needs only heed the advice of Big Boi on OutKast classic “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac),” “In the middle we stay calm, we just drop bombs.”