I never liked math class very much, but there's one (rap) equation I can get behind, and that's Phantogram + Big Boi = Big Grams. The powerful duo's maiden voyage goes down at the Treasure Island Music Festival on Saturday and along with Run The Jewels, they represent the hip-hop offerings at the fest.
So how the hell did one half of Outkast team up with electro-pop darlings Phantogram to create this unconventional supergroup? Big Grams told Paste Magazine's Kyle Mullin, that the first time they met was right in here in San Francisco, during 2011’s Outside Lands Festival. It seems fitting that their first live performance will go down at OSL’s alternative-dressing sister fest, TIMF (shouts to TI for making this happen on short notice after Azealia Banks dropped out just a few weeks ago.)
But what can we make of this project? The Big Grams EP is a brief yet shining seven tracks, which all feed into a complex theme of the 7 deadly sins. Let's take this opportunity to break it down track-for-track and see what's under the skin of the supergroup's debut (which you can hear in full at the bottom of this post):
[jump] “Run For Your Life”
Big Boi's biggest moment on the album comes on the first track. He doesn't fill the bars like this anywhere else, instead, he gives way to Phantogram's Sarah Barthel for most of the record. “Run For Your Life” is here to build an atmosphere. The slow building beat is downtempo compared to the album's more danceable moments. But while Big Boi's rapping is fluid, consistent and has his signature cadence, the lyrical makeup is not his strongest:
And get it, until you got all, I’m with it
Gon’ ball ‘til you crawl just for the alcohol and bitches
Huh? This sounds akin to a Honda Accord soundsystem freestyle. Moving along….
Here Big Grams takes the better path to success, namely letting Barthel be the shining star. Josh Carter's production has a distinct Southern bounce to it, which is surely part of Big Boi's influence. But Barthel's voice is so damn pleasant. She never needs to belt to be effective and emotive. Big Boi doesn't feel the need to get so many words in on his one verse so it works way better — like the Outkast-era Big Boi:
I beat my drum and live my life to the rhythm
I had the blues once or twice in my lifetime but I swear I never lose
Cause I lost so much when I was younger
Now we're talkin'.
“Fell In The Sun”
This is the best song on the album. Let's just get that out there. In fact, it's a 'Best Of' year-end list song. It's that good. The production works on every level and Barthel's hook is fucking divine. In fact, Barthel is so damn excellent, that you easily overlook Big Boi seeming like he just shows up, spits a few bars and falls back into the background. It's like a foil for how awesome the hook is, with the layered vocal track. This song rules. Period.
“Put It On Her”
Hear those drums? Yup, that's a 9th Wonder beat. This is definitely a pulling-out-all-the-stops feature. 9th Wonder is one of the best. “Put It On Her” sounds the most like the funky soul grooves of the ATL. Big Boi is smooth and finds a way to let the 9th Wonder beat shimmer and drive every second of this song. The curveball here, is the Quasimoto-sounding other rapper, Phantogram producer Josh Carter. I was surprised when I found out it was Carter, and even more so when I noticed his bars ain't all that bad. The voice is weird, cause it's def reminiscent of Madlib/Quasimoto, but even Carter holds back the force to show love to 9th Wonder's drums and horns. Barthel's vocals are made to feel like a cadre of backing soul singers, that pairs amicably to 9th's soul sample insertions and Big Boi's Outkast-era punctuations. This is pretty dope and shouts to 9th Wonder, he smashed it.
This is where we realize that every track on this record is a different type of exploration. The keys sample is a nice touch and this is the best example of Barthel and Big Boi complementing each other. There's an inventive bridge, with a back and forth between Barthel and Big Boi, on top of orchestral strings and Carter's beat. Again, a great pop hook with the “gold” theme to complement the album's artwork and the theme of greed.
“Born To Shine” (feat. Run The Jewels)
The best rapper on this album is Killer Mike. Are you surprised? You shouldn't be. El-P ain't too shabby on this joint either:
Without coins, I'm a magical bloke
I’ll barracuda you chum, for the simple fact that you don’t know how to float
There hasn't been a more El-P stanza than this, since his solo and Company Flow days. This is the type of rhyme he dropped on Fantastic Damage and Funcrusher Plus. Barthel is later incorporated ranging on asides over guitars and Carter's drunken drum beat. Can't deny an RTJ feature.
“Drum Machine” (feat. Skrillex)
Ok… I had some friends who were like “I like the Big Grams EP, except for that Skrillex track!” And while I sorta just nodded my head in agreement at first, I now actually dig this track for the sheer fact that this isn't some wack-ass dubstep beat. This shit is some sorta hyphy/bounce type shit and Skrillex doesn't fall flat on his face in the forray. The vocals are pretty robotic, but hey… it's Skrillex. Shouts to Big Grams for trying something different on the last track.