If there was one thing that fans wanted out of Big Boi in 2015, it was almost certainly a comeback album from his beloved duo Outkast. Second on that wish list would likely be the solo record that Big Boi has been talking about since signing with Epic Records in 2014. Those albums aren’t likely to come to fruition this year, meaning that this seven-track EP with his returning collaborators in Phantogram will come as a welcome consolation prize.
This collaborative arrangement serves Phantogram better than it does Big Boi. Not only does the New York duo get its name attached to a legendary rapper (who could presumably have his pick of artists to sing his hooks), but Phantogram’s Big Grams contributions make more of a lasting impression than Big Boi’s. Despite the rapper’s iconic status, he doesn’t deliver any particularly memorable verses on the EP, which is more notable for its moody atmosphere than its rhymes.
Consider a song like the opening “Run for Your Life,” in which Big Boi’s rapping serves primarily as a means to complement the bloopy, synth-doused beat. The real payoff comes when the arrangement goes widescreen during the choruses, and the most memorable lyric of the song occurs when Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel seductively coos, “You want to slide down my mountain face.” This opening cut sets the tone for the EP, as Big Boi raps the verses while Phantogram handles all of the hooks. Soul-spiked numbers “Fell in the Sun” and “Put It on Her” are pleasant, but don’t offer many surprises and sound exactly like what one would expect out of a partnership between a rapper and a synth-pop band.
Big Grams achieves the best results when the collaborators share duties a little more evenly, as they do on “Goldmine Junkie.” Far and away the best track here, its solemn piano lays the foundation for a cinematic arrangement in which Big Boi helps to sing the chorus and Barthel slides into half-spoken rap for a brief passage. As they interact on the mic, Big Grams finally sounds like the work of a proper band rather than simply a mashup project.
On the other hand, the collaboration is far less successful when other artists enter the fray, as on the EP’s final two tracks. Penultimate cut “Born to Shine” features a hell-raising appearance from Run the Jewels, whose in-your-face aggression undermines the brooding tone of the tracks that precede it. Barthel sounds out of her element on this track, as she awkwardly sings about “fuckboy clowns” before struggling through some awkward yowls. The closing “Drum Machine” sounds similarly out of place, as Skrillex’s off-kilter robo beats take the focus away from Big Boi and Phantogram.
If listeners ignore these two ill-fitting cuts, we’re left with five solid tunes, making this an enjoyable side-project for fans of the artists involved. Still it’s hard not to wish that Big Boi would focus his attention on a new full-length rather than comparatively lightweight endeavours such as this.
Review by Alex Hudson