Mainstream hip-hop has been increasingly, purposefully tuneful of late, with an emphasis on beats but also on soundscapes. A parallel trend is the collusion between rap artists and indie acts: Kanye West and Bon Iver, Big Boi and Wavves, even the Blakroc project. With MCs pursuing melody and texture as never before, Big Boi (a.k.a. Antwan Patton) doesn't merely ride this particular wave; he surfs it surely, adopting a maximalist production style without ever obscuring smart rhymes that dissect relationships with convincing expertise. On 2010's Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, Big Boi summoned symphonic experiments alongside largely programmatic statements about his own badassery; on Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, he adapts the same sonic breadth to songs of a more carnal and emotionally canny nature. The album is profoundly atmospheric, not in the triumphalist Kanye vein, but with enough melodic hooks on which to hang songs that are both thumping and bittersweet. In the best sense, it's the conspicuous work of a magnanimous music lover, as traditional hard-grind Southern hip-hop shares space with Detroit basslines and the indie sounds of San Diego, Portland, and Brooklyn.
Reflexive eclecticism is no good on its own, but Vicious Lies coheres on the strength of Big Boi's polyvocal delivery, apparent moral compass, and a palpable confidence in his craft. Obvious highlights include two Phantogram collaborations—one sexy, the other very sad—and the slinky "Apple of My Eye," but also the hypnotic "Mama Told Me," which features a fetching Kelly Rowland hook, and "Shoes for Running," which enlists San Diego lo-fi darlings Wavves for low-end guitar and sing-along choruses on a funky track that sounds like Nappy Roots via Sup Pop.
Throughout, Big Boi varies his smooth storytelling mode with that classic enjambed, deconstructionist delivery—and few rappers can touch his vivid ability to describe sex acts via percussive onomatopoeia. Best of all, he never lets a song get stolen out from under him, even amid standout turns from T.I. and Ludacris on banger "In the A." The Kid Cudi-assisted single "She Hates Me" may be the defining song of the album, a dark, midtempo number-taking inventory of a broken relationship. (You know, an OutKast song.) Here, Big Boi's emotional forthrightness comes through in full: "If you can hate on anybody girl I'm glad it was me" demonstrates at least as much empathy as "Never meant to make your daughter cry."
Vicious Lies may not be revolutionary in its sonic palette, but the very excellence of the music on its own merits seems like an industry bellwether, the ante upped on production expectations going forward. Sure, Andre 3000 was the flashy one, but Big Boi, once liberated from the strictures of the duo dynamic, has proven the truly experimental member of the pair. The solo muse serves him well, and he's operating with a forward-thinking sense of purpose. We'll know he's gone too far if he starts wearing boat shoes.