Now here's a riddle for you: What do you call a rapper with nothing to rap about?
Andre 3000, perhaps?
If you think that's funny, wait till you hear how the disenchanted MC got his swagger back by vibing with a cast full of cartoon characters.
For starters, you have to backtrack a few years to the release of OutKast's stunning double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Andre Benjamin's coming-out party. Bored with thug rap's clichés and underground hip-hop's code of ethics, he decided to set it off on the left by charting his own creative course.
"I remember when things were going on with The Love Below, and people would ask [why I'm not] rapping," he recalls via phone. "And I'd say, 'Well, I really felt like I didn't really have nothing to say at the time, so it's easier for me to write melodies.'"
But what started off as a funky detour left Dre sounding like he was stuck in a rut by the time he and Big Boi reached Idlewild, the disoriented CD that accompanied the group's ambitious throwback musical. As a result of Idlewild's lackluster performance at the box office and on the Billboard charts, both Dre and Big experienced the most humbling period of their careers.
"Most definitely," he admits. "You have to realize that in our 13 years we've never – thank God – we've never caught a brick, you know, until the Idlewild project. So, stuff like that kinda lets you know you're human in a way. And I mean, believe it or not, I knew the turnout of the Idlewild project before it even came out. I mean, you just have a sense, a feeling about it. So I had kinda prepared myself for what was going to go on with that one."
Suddenly he had something to prove – and therefore something to rap about – again. But before he could make guest appearances on the surge of remixes and album cuts that would place him in the street-credible company of collaborators such as DJ Unk, Nas, Devin the Dude, Snoop Dogg, UGK and Three Six Mafia, he had a school music teacher named Sunny Bridges to contend with.
When Andre's animated TV show "Class of 3000" debuted in November 2006, it earned record ratings for the Cartoon Network. Besides co-executive-producing the show, currently airing its second season, Andre also lends his voice and persona to lead character Sunny Bridges – a pop star who abandons the limelight to teach music to a class of Atlanta-based performing-arts-school prodigies.
Dre's most significant contribution to the show, however, is the one original song he composes for each episode. Quiet as it's kept, the first season's soundtrack – which was released a month ago – is some of his most creative work ever. Actually, it's child's play. Imagine a mashup of the straight-ahead jazz of Vince Guaraldi sprinkled atop Charlie Brown's "Peanuts" gang and the sloppy funk Herbie Hancock concocted for "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." Beef it up with Andre's programmed drum beats and collaborator Kevin Kendrick's raw piano licks. Then throw in some well-placed horns, clarinets and keyboards, and Class of 3000: Music Volume One becomes the perfect sound garden for a bunch of chipmunk-voiced kids to romp around in. When Andre isn't leading call-and-response sing-alongs as Sunny Bridges, the cast of students is rapping or pledging allegiance to their side of town: "Bankhead! Buckhead! Go head! Go head!"
Apparently, playtime gave Dre the opportunity to reconnect with his inner MC, too. Listen to any of the half-dozen or so songs he's rapped on in the past nine months – starting with "Walk It Out," which also dropped in November 2006 – and it's obvious he's found a way to make hip-hop fun again.
"You don't want to get in a place where you separate yourself from the youth," Dre said in an earlier conversation. "[Hip-hop] is growing up, though. But you just kinda find ways to be creative in your growing up. And you gotta stay true to yourself. You can't be out here acting like you're young and doing the same thing, 'cause that's wack."
Midlife rapper's crisis aside, Dre is learning how to grow old gracefully without losing his cool. In some cases, concessions must be made. On UGK's "International Player's Anthem," for example, he busts a flow about finding the perfect wife versus pimping the millionth ho. It's a bold step – one the culture at large could benefit from.
In the meantime, Andre and Big Boi still plan to release solo albums before dropping another joint project. Whether or not 3000 will maintain his newfound sense of balance between the rhymes and the melodies is his call to make.
"As long as I have something to say in rhyme form, I'll do it. It's all about having something to say," he stresses. "And so long as I have something to say, I'll speak. But I don't really just want to be BSin'."
No doubt Sunny Bridges would agree.
Memorable lines from Andre 3000's recent rhymes
"Walk It Out" remix, DJ Unk (w/ Big Boi) -- "Your white tee, well to me, looks like a nightgown. Make ya mama proud, take that thing two sizes down."
"Throw Some D's" remix, Rich Boy – "Ain't a hood nigga, but a nigga from the ho-od. See momma stayed on me so I turned out pretty go-od."
"You" remix, Lloyd – "I got 'bout halfway to my car when I heard shawty shout: '3000, forgot your credit card. Smart move. By the way my little sister loves your cartoon.'"
"What a Job," Devin the Dude – "See we do it for that boy that graduated. That looked you in your eyes real tough and said 'Preciate it.' And that he wouldn'ta made it if it wasn't for your CD, number nine. And he's standing with his baby momma Kiki and she's cryin'."
"International Player's Anthem," UGK (w/ Big Boi) – "I typed a text to a girl I used to see sayin' that I chose this cutie pie with whom I wanna be. And I apologize if this message gets you down. Then I cc'd every girl that I see-see'd around town."