It almost seems laughable now that fans once considered Andre 3000 the eclectic one. In the ‘10s, the much more maligned member of OutKast, Big Boi, has become a noted genre-bender in his own right, covering varying sonic terrain casually and comfortably. His 2010 solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty perfectly mixed longtime Dungeon Family cohorts (Organized Noise, Joi, Khujo, Big Rube) with extended family (Janelle Monae, Vonnegutt) and a few unexpected guests (Gucci Mane, B.o.B., Yelawolf) to intoxicating results. It was bold and ambitious, a statement album from a legend with nothing to prove. The follow-up, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, attempted to burrow even further into unusual soundscapes with Little Dragon, Wavves, and Phantogram, and though it didn’t quite strike the right chords or establish a proper balance, it at the very least parroted its predecessor’s ambitious spirit.
It’s that project and its heavy-handed genre-melding that acts as a cornerstone of sorts for Big Grams, the collaborative EP by Big Boi and the aforementioned Phantogram, a Greenwich electropop duo with a strong track record. Big Boi stumbled on Phantogram on accident, hearing the pair’s music in a pop-up ad, and it often seems like we’d be better off if he hadn’t. Big Boi and Phantogram collaborations are a bit like pop-up ads in the sense that they’re usually plugging something you don’t want and you exit out of them quickly. Big Grams, both in music and title, sounds like a half-baked mash-up album. This is too much like forcefully grafting Big Boi verses onto Phantograms production simply for the sake of being different. There’s no creative expansion, just two acts trying to exist in their own worlds simultaneously instead of finding a new and interesting middle ground. Mixing classic Big Boi verses over old Phantogram songs would’ve probably been just as effective.
This isn’t the same artful execution listeners have come to expect from Big Boi or Phantogram individually. The craftsmanship is a bit sloppy, even for an EP. “Lights On” basically tags Big Boi platitudes (“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars”) onto a Phantogram b-side. 9th Wonder’s signature soul is crammed between walls of blurry synth productions. Sometimes, the rapping is empty and impactless, and there’s an unhealthy amount of bad dick jokes (“Laura Jones and she want that Johnson and Johnson/ But, not that baby powder but my sausage”, “Talk about a Vitamin D overdose/ And I do mean D”, “I’m tempted to put the PVC pipe in her life”). When Run the Jewels shows up on “Born to Shine”, they show just how out of stride Big Boi sounds.
That isn’t to say that Big Grams is without moments of deft rapping from the OutKast legend or that it’s completely unlistenable. The Skrillex-produced “Drum Machine” is a glimpse into how efficient Big Boi can be over kinetic electronic production with bars like “Keep heat like the flame below the mantle, freak beats and make examples/ Assassinate every chant all the way from Atlanta, dick ride emcees and grab your saddles.” The raps are goofy but tight, nimble, and elastic on “Run for Your Life”, which is the closest the collaboration gets to finding synergy, with Phantogram really shining. But despite its brief excursions into exciting sonic space, Big Grams is limited by its unwillingness to do any real exploring.