There we were, three men two beers deep at a taco place in Columbia Heights, and my friend started to bare his soul.
For the next two bowls of chips and salsa he proceeded to tell us about this great girl. They had been friends a long time ago, she had just moved back into the area and he really liked her. They had been hanging out for a few weeks and nothing had happened yet, but he really likes her. He isn’t sure what to do but he really likes her. She might not be in D.C. for long, and just broke up with her boyfriend, but he really likes her. Did I mention he likes her?
I wanted to tell him about all the red flags. I wanted to remind him that he was describing the plot of every Jennifer Anniston movie ever. I wanted to remind him of that zone where dreams go to die, the one even Rae Sremmurd dare not sing about. I wanted to yell "THE FRIEND ZONE" in his face.
But then my tacos arrived.
It’s not that I didn’t care about his plight, it’s just that, first and foremost, tacos are delicious, and secondly, deep in his heart he already knew. The friendzone is a maximum security prison of solitary confinement that’s better guarded than Rick Ross’ Twinkie supply, and once you’re in, there’s no escape. You’re sentenced to a lifetime of frustrating underappreciation. The guy she wants is standing right in front of her, but she can't see it. It's the most frustrating, soul-crushing feeling in the world and I don’t need to explain it any more because I know that 99.9% of you, male or female, have been there before.
But for as shitty as you’ve felt when you've been friendzoned, for the past nine years, you’ve probably been doing it to someone too. We all owe Big Boi, hip-hop’s most friendzoned rapper, an apology.
It's hard to call Big Boi underappreciated. Antwan Patton has multiple platinum albums, he isn’t really "slept" on, he isn’t spurned by major labels and he doesn’t lack respect, but still, he can never be just Big Boi because of Andre 3000. Together they are celebrated as the greatest, but apart the half who gets the bulk of our attention and admiration is the one who doesn’t want it, the one who doesn't even want to make music. We shell out 18 bucks for tickets and popcorn to see Andre play Jimi Hendrix but we can't be bothered to check out the other while he is on a solo tour (I saw Big Boi live and the crowd wasn't a fraction of those at Coachella to see Outkast). One drops a guest verse every three years that we savor like the last drop of water in the desert, while the other is a veritable El Nino of rap. General Patton has been here for us for 25 years, serving as a steady guiding light, finding something so few artists have; solo success outside an already established, reviled group, but he gets none of the same acclaim. Imagine if we ignored Beyonce or Justin Timberlake in favor of Kelly or Lance.
Since Outkast's maybe-not-technically-a-breakup-but-come-on-now-they-broke-up, Big Boi has released two solo albums (one of which was the inspiration for an amazing Black Keys remix project), a wealth of dope guest verses, and has landed a few acting roles himself. That’s a career on top of a career. He’s been a major player in the game for more than two decases, he’s seen trend after trend come and go but in the middle of it all, he stayed calm and dropped bomb after bomb. He’s not surviving off old Outkast memories either, Big Boi has distanced himself from that period while staying true to the group's original spirit, but it’s us, the fans, who can't let go. Post-Outkast, Big has done more than enough to earn a place in our hearts, yet he is still forever plagued by the shadow that Andre casts.
Sir Lucious Left Foot isn’t just a great rapper from Atlanta, he’s our only window into the hermit life of 3 Stacks and we abuse that power. We take it for granted. We cry on his shoulder asking him why Andre doesn’t love us, when he’s the one who we should be focused on. He can’t go one Reddit AMA or interview without being asked about his old friend; he can't ever just be Big Boi. It must be tiring to always feel like no matter what you do, no matter how much respect people have for you, they can't see just you. At what point does he stop having to answer for Andre’s disappearance? We’ve taken him for granted. He’ll always be there for us and so it’s Andre we really want.
I’m guilty of it too. As I mentioned, I caught Big Boi’s last solo tour. Fresh off an ACL injury but still touring, Big Boi couldn't stand for that long, so instead of canceling the tour or cutting it short he merely wheeled a throne onstage. Though he was injured, he gave it his all. I’ll always have this image of him, perched atop the red velvet and gold plated throne, rocking shades, a brave fitted and confident smile. I looked up at him adoringly, “This is everything an emcee should be, ” I thought. Still, as I left the Howard Theater that night, I couldn't help but feel unfulfilled. Hearing “Ms. Jackson,” and “ATLiens“ without Andre left me wanting more. I felt guilty for it, but at the same time, I couldn't help but feel that way. As much as I respect and admire Big, I thought I would forever be stuck on Andre.
But then Big Boi showed up at my window in the middle of the night holding a boombox, blasting Big Grams and, it all clicked.
Andre 3000’s unique style and creativity is what keeps us hanging onto him when we should be praising Big Boi for the exact same thing. Big Boi teamed up with an electronic/pop duo and created an experimental album with incredible life, charisma and color. Still, with the bounce comes a bite. At times it’s brash and comically raunchy - I lost count of all the dick references midway through - but it never feels cheap. Production and direction-wise this album is such a far cry from anything we have heard from Patton, and yet he sounds so comfortable and so at home; he is remarkably agile but never loses that quintessential, heavy-handed rasp. He has the aura and confidence of a 25 year veteran, but he sounds as excited and as hungry as any up-and-comer. This is some of his best, most creative material to date. He is the star of the show. Phantogram caught my attention with songs like “Black Out Days” and "When I'm Small," but they’ve never been able to really connect because, as a hip-hop head, I need some kick, some real bite. The production quality and knack for intoxicating hooks are there, but it's Big Boi who gives the project the real meat. He provides that punch that only hip-hop can bring to the table.
Take “Put It On Her.” The horn section, those skipping drums and of course a subtle little sample tucked in. That’s a hip-hop song if I’ve ever heard one. Still, it’s not a typical rap album by any means. Just a few song earlier on “Lights On,” Daddy Fat Saxxx takes a backseat to Sarah Barthely, letting the song take on a more poppy path. Some songs like "Born To Shine" are the perfect marriage of both styles. On the one hand Run The Jewels will eat your face, but that hook is as rich and sultry as a Bond theme song. No matter where the album meanders sonically, it’s Big Boi who gives it that special feel. He is the engine that sends Big Grams careening into your ears and heart. Big really showed me that next level of creativity, that emphasis on keeping things fresh and different, which to date has made Andre a legend, but more important, more telling than any one line, song, or snare kick, though, is the fact that I didn’t think of Andre 3000 once. Big Boi finally broke free of the ball and chain that had kept him a prisoner of history.
He's done his part. Now it’s up to us.
Let’s use the magical dopeness that is Big Grams to shine a light on the creative force that is Big Boi. Let’s stop chasing ghosts, wondering about what could be, let’s take the guy who treats us right and continues to give us his all, churning out quality material while showing no signs of slowing down. Let’s give him the respect that is long overdue. Maybe then we can all live happily ever after. It works in the movies, right?
Hey, as he said himself on "Big Drums":
"Known to put dick in the friendzone, but only by request like a big song / Not my own heir to an Andre, what's happenin', I see ya."