Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Unhappy" - OutKast

Music is one of life's great mood regulators. When you're feeling good, music affirms you and when things are going well it alternately helps you wallow or find strength. This has been a tough week with minor illness personally, major health problems in my family and more things to do than time to do them in. Oh, and it's been cold and rainy all week. It's precisely this type of week upon which the foundation of modern popular music - the blues - was built. However, straight-up bluesmen are scarcer these days than scientists at a Rick Perry rally. Rock has mostly left its 12-bar roots behind for garage-y power chords and genre hopping while modern R&B is heavy on "R" with no time for po-faced done-me-wrong tales of woe. So in the 21st century we're left to take our solace where we can find it and for my money, there are few better modern blues songs than Big Boi's 2003 cut, "Unhappy".

Antwan Patterson, aka Big Boi, was the heavier (both physically and lyrically) half of Atlanta hip-hop icons OutKast and on his half of the group's split double disc album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he first began proving that he was capable of writing and carrying a whole album almost entirely on his own. "Unhappy" comes early on in the album and helps show that, despite his reputation as the jovial hustler of the group, his lyrical depth and musical inventiveness give him a staggeringly broad range (see also "War", "Church" and "The Rooster").

The song starts out with a jive intro where Patton steps to the mic as one of his many alter-egos, Sir Lucious Left-Foot (he always puts his best foot forward), who would become the focus of Boi's first proper solo album. After this red herring start, the track's circular beat kicks in over the end of the intro before bass and a sweet guitar sample enter, softening the song's feel and setting the stage for the refrain. "Might as well have fun / cause your happiness is done / and your goose is cooked", a multitracked chorus sings, setting the tone the for the rest of the track while still peppering the message with enough sweetness and melody to feel oddly comforting.

The verses are clinics for Big Boi's patented ebb and flow, spitfire delivery which showcase his uncanny sense of both rhythm and feel for language. He starts by speeding through dense passages packed with alliteration and complex internal and traditional rhyme schemes (ie. his advice that you "must keep self out of harm / out of danger's way / let strangers play / while you graduate and move on"). The story starts in the present with a central character facing unspecified personal and legal trouble and bearing the brunt of his family's problems which he can't seem to avoid, solve or outrun. 

But then like a shimmery flashback fade in a sit-com, the scene suddenly shifts in the next verse as Big Boi intones, "once upon a time / one time when I was a child" before pausing briefly and letting his backing chorus add a playful parenthetical reminder - "flip that smile upside down now". Then its back to the story of his parents struggling to pay for Christmas presents before again pausing, letting the instrumentation fall out for a second while he highlights the brief moments of joy with an ascending vocal aside remembering that "still we had / enough to get by / enough to get fly". He almost literally raises your hopes with before slamming them back down to reality as the beat falls back into place and family is back in debt.

It is this spirit of clever playfulness in the face of harsh reality that makes "Unhappy" the type of life-affirming tale of woe that traditional blues did so well. The soft keys, guitar and chorus make for a warm sonic bed to offset the harshness of the lyrics. The second verse finds our hero a little older, old enough to be drinking and starting to flee his problems as he muses "I never thought that alcohol could ease the notion of the sadness / what done used to be a happy home done turned into some bad shit". But even so, he knows that he survived and it forced him to grow up a become his own man. Oh, and then he brags for the second time about getting hot sauce in way that makes not literal (to my honky ass, at least) but perfect connotative sense. 

Even the best lives will be beset with failures, sickness, the loss of friends and family, and, eventually, their inevitable termination. So in some sense we all know that, at the most basic level, our goose is cooked and there's nothing we can really do to change the facts. But we can choose how we deal with pain and "Unhappy" is a commentary on that choice. Specifically, Big Boi shows that by approaching problems directly, having a sense of humor and allowing ourselves to get fly every once in a while maybe we can take some away from our pain and keep moving forward.

As the song winds down with the beat circling the drain and guitar sample playing itself out, you realize that, like real life, nothing in the song has been resolved. Things aren't magically better, problems still loom and the only comfort gained comes in knowing that the struggle itself has shaped the narrator of today. But the genius of the song is that it's so fun and deftly executed that you're somehow left with the feeling that that's enough. The 21st century may be lacking in wailing bluesmen, but if you know where to look, we've got people like Big Boi more than happy to pick up the slack.

Unhappy - OutKast   Buy Speakerboxx/The Love Below.

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