This article originally appeared in TechNews on October 6, 2015
Some collaborative albums come about as natural extensions of deeply connected music scenes, and by the time they happen, they seem inevitable. This one is neither of those things. Put together following a series of brief meetings at music festivals, Big Grams is the debut EP from a trio of the same name, composed of OutKast member Big Boi and indie electro-rock darlings Phantogram. More than just a meshing of Phantogram’s signature dream pop style with Big Boi’s rhymes, the project represents a whole-hearted attempt to create a brand new sound from the talents of both artists, and for the most part, it succeeds. Given the nature of the project, diehard fans of Phantogram won’t think that this EP ranks among the duo’s best work to date, and Big Boi devotees will largely consider it as subpar in comparison to 2012’s critically-acclaimed Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors or anything he’s done with OutKast. But really, that’s not the point. Since Big Grams represents a brand new act instead of a one-off collab, those who most fall for this album will be new fans, not each artist’s established base.
Album opener “Run for Your Life” is the obvious single from the EP, one of five tracks on the release produced entirely by Phantogram themselves. It serves as an introduction to the philosophy behind the album: reimagining Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel’s signature composition style through a pure hip hop lens, with Big Boi providing the lyrical power to make such a concept work. In fact, that first song and a couple others from the album could easily find their way into a Big Boi album, with Barthel’s smooth voice serving as chorus content and largely avoiding verses. However, the record shines most where the vocal balance between Big Boi and Barthel is evened out, with mid-album standout “Goldmine Junkie” giving the best demonstration of what the group is truly capable of when they work together as a unit. The middle three tracks of the EP, where this true meshing of sounds comes into force, is the strongest passage present.
Outside the impressive center of the EP, though, things start to fall apart somewhat. Songs like “Lights On” are far too light on lyrical impact, with repeated pop tropes (“keep your lights on for me”, etc.) pervading otherwise solid backing music. On occasion, Big Boi seems to be drawing from an outtakes bin for his verses rather than devising truly new, hard-hitting lyrics, and no storytelling of importance is ever given to Sarah Barthel to sing about, an oversight of massive proportions. In addition, the Skrillex-produced final track “Drum Machine” simply doesn’t fit in, sounding like a dance-floor mix of a demo reel rather than a fully fleshed-out song in its own right. Interestingly, given that only two guest producers were involved in the album’s production, rapped lyrics seem to be at different levels in the mix from song to song, which makes the EP hard to consider as a cohesive effort rather than a collection of singles. If a couple tracks had been cut and some more time had been spent in the studio to combine sounds as well as Barthel, Big Boi, and Carter do on “Put It On Her” and “Goldmine Junkie”, Big Grams would have earned high praises for this release. As it stands, though, there’s still some work to do. 5.0/10