OutKast and UGK's "International Players Anthem": Song of the Year

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There are a couple of schools of critical thought about Andre 3000's recent blitzkrieg of guest-raps, a hobby it once looked like he'd given up after murdering the intro of Sleepy Brown's "I Can't Wait" a few years back. One side of the debate has greeted Andre's return with unqualified hosannas: one of the greatest rappers of all time finally rediscovering the joy in what he does best, figuring out that he's better at putting verses together than he is at doing gallingly cutesy Prince impressions. The other side says that Andre has duped us all, that his long absence from rap made us miss him so badly that we're falling all over ourselves to praise his rhythm-free mickey-mouse guest-spots; Al Shipley even went so far as to compare him to Murphy Lee. Before UGK's new single "International Players Anthem" hit the internet a while ago, I would've placed myself somewhere between the two poles. I was definitely happy to hear Andre rapping again, and I really liked that he was making his big return alongside jokers like Jim Jones on pop-rap megaliths like "Walk It Out" and "Throw Some D's," treating his big return like it wasn't even a big deal at all. But I didn't like how he brought his new cartoonishly cheery persona to those verses or how he'd altered his slippery flow to the point where he was just rushing to cram in syllables, barely paying attention to the beat at all. On the remix to Lloyd's "You," he talks about meeting a girl in Whole Foods, and it's a really nice bit of storytelling, observant and fluid, but it's also got a sort of Wes Anderson forced tweeness, like he's trying to transform himself into a stuffed animal before our eyes. Andre's verse on "International Players Anthem" isn't really all that different from the other stuff he's been doing lately, but works perfectly within the context of an amazing song. The "International Players Anthem" video hit the internet yesterday, and I've already watched it about fifteen times. I wouldn't change a thing about it. It's perfect.

Actually, that's overstating things a bit. Useless cameo-machine Bishop Don Magic Juan hogs precious seconds of screen-time like this was a Snoop Dogg video, and I sort of don't like the way a UGK video somehow reduces Pimp C and Bun B to Andre's supporting cast. Still, it's an amazing piece of work, and anyone who hasn't seen it yet should probably go watch that shit right now before reading another word of this entry. The whole thing is set around Andre's wedding, starting out with UGK and Three 6 Mafia sitting around and taking good-natured shots at Andre. (Honestly, I could listen to Southern rap luminaries make fun of Andre's clothes for hours.) From there, everything unfolds in a gorgeously sunny haze: Andre's groomsmen goofily lip-sync his lyrics at him, more Southern rap luminaries make split-second cameos, two video-chicks inexplicably wrestle in the wedding cake. The whole thing comes with a fuzzy glow that I just love. This is going to look ridiculous, especially if Bridget's reading this, but I've been engaged for a little more than a year now, and in that time no piece of pop-culture ephemera has made me more excited to be getting married than this video. Even if Pimp C is almost certainly not showing up to my wedding in a giant white fur hat, this thing looks like a whole lot of fun.

The song, probably my favorite single of the year thus far, plays on similar romantic impulses in similarly goofy ways. DJ Paul and Juicy J produced the track, swiping the woozy and euphoric horns and vocals from Willie Hutch's "I Choose You." Paul and Juicy have used that exact same beat once before, for Project Pat's "Choose U" a few years ago, but I'm not really mad at them for that. It sort of dampened the track's cinematic lilt to hear Pat talking about spending your child support money on it, and anyway it's exactly the sort of warm, slow, organic track that generally works perfectly with Bun and Pimp's thick, wizened voices. Originally, Paul and Juicy also rapped on the track, but I guess record-company politics kept that version from seeing the light of day. I've heard the track's original version, and it's fine. It starts out with the Pimp C verse, tacking the serviceable verses from Paul and Juicy onto the end. If it'd showed up on the UGK album in its original form, it would've been a really good deep-cut. But with OutKast on the song instead of Three 6 Mafia, it's transcendent.

Andre shows up on the track before the beat actually drops, a trick that makes the most of his idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. There aren't any drums to worry about, so he doesn't have to worry about falling on and off the track. Andre's verse is happy and dazed and confused. It's about falling in love, about diving headlong into the idea that you'll never be single again and feeling vaguely smug about it. When Andre's verse ends, the huge thumping drums come in suddenly, and Pimp C's verse starts right away; it's an absolutely thrilling moment. In terms of technical skill, the verses from Pimp and Bun and Big Boi all just bury Andre's verse, but all of them need Andre's verse to give them a grace they wouldn't have had otherwise. Pimp and Bun both talk about pimping in bald terms, about convincing girls that it'd be a good idea to work for them. Big Boi raps about getting frustrated wondering what's happening to child-support payments. None of these are particularly laudable sentiments, but coming after Andre, they're humanized, almost romantic. In his verse, Andre effectively casts all of them as the friends who don't understand why he's getting married, a conceit that the video pushes further. There's a lot going on in the lyrics, and the verses seem to contradict or at least clash with each other in small ways, but that just makes them feel more like different sides of a conversation. And even when the buzz from the song fades, which it hasn't since it first leaked, we'll still have ideas to pick apart. I don't know whether "International Players Anthem" can become a bona fide hit; after all, it basically doesn't have a chorus. At this point, that doesn't matter. It's already a great pop moment.


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