in the studio

Big Boi Shows Vulture Stankonia Studios

Big Boi on the roof of Stankonia Studios.

Stankonia Studios, the birthplace of some of Outkast’s — and, in turn, America’s — biggest hits over the last decade, is a squat gray building in a residential block of midtown Atlanta. The inside, where platinum plaques hang on the bright red walls and Big Boi welcomes us while distractedly puffing on a Black and Mild, is more in line with expectations. But it’s no cozy movie-set: worn couches, Chick-Fil-A bags, legal pads, Bud Light cans, masking-tape rolls, extra-large Kroger-brand-aspirin bottles, and the sugar packets/stirrers/creamer set-up familiar to any office dweller make it clear this is a place of business.

For Big Boi, over the last three years, that business has been Sir Lucious Left Foot: the Son of Chico Dusty. Thanks to delay after delay from Jive Records, Big Boi’s now former label, and mouthwatering leaked dribbles and bits, Sir Lucious — which was finally released this week — had become a nearly mythical solo album. Big Boi started recording on “Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, 2007,” he says, seated in Stankonia’s B room, ashing his cigarillo, and finally mastered “on Dre’s birthday, this year, May 27. A good sign.” “Dre” would be Andre Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre 3000 (a.k.a. 3 Stacks, if you feel like getting fancy), for sixteen years and counting Big’s partner in crime in Outkast. And, if Big Boi had his way, his partner on Sir Lucious too. “Dre could have gotten on every song on the album if he wanted to,” Big says wistfully. “We could have easily turned this into an Outkast album. Very easily.”

The reason that it is not is both complicated and simple: Andre 3000, with whom Big Boi swears he has never had a serious falling out, did not want to make an Outkast album. But before Big explains any further, it’s time to actually hear Sir Lucious. The album plays — through “Shine Blockas” and “Fo Yo Sorrows,” the early, aging-like-fine-wine leaks; “Shutterbugg,” the Roger Troutman–resuscitating talk-box jam (“It’s not fucking Auto-Tune. Do your history, motherfuckers”); and “General Patton,” the greatest rap song ever named for a guy who played a big part in the Battle of the Bulge — at a wonderfully ear-shattering volume, in the room it was recorded.

As anyone who cares has by now found out, Sir Lucious is really, really good: Big Boi’s lyrics are playful, but his flow is stern and unpredictable, and it’s the perfect complement to the production, all of it intricately layered and massive. “Like someone’s pushing you around the room,” Big says, grinning and miming a two-handed shove.

And as far as the narrative is concerned, that means Sir Lucious actually justifies the outrage over Jive keeping it on the shelf for as long as they did. So, why the hell did that happen?

“I was stuck in a space where I’m making this music that Jive did not understand,” Big Boi says. “They were telling me my album was a piece of art. They told my manager they didn’t know how to market and promote that. They were talking about just doing an online limited release of my record.” About a year and half ago, with much of the album recorded, Jive went fishing for a single, and asked Big Boi, specifically, for something along the lines of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” “That kind of shook me up.”

Roughly a half-year back, Jive gave Big Boi an ultimatum. “It was, ‘Okay, if you don’t put out the record with Dre on it [the song “Looking For Ya”] first, then you can take your album elsewhere.” Here, Big pauses for effect. “I was like, ‘Really? Okay, cool!” He quickly contacted L.A. Reid, the man who signed Outkast to LaFace Records fresh out of high school, and who is now the chairman and C.E.O. of Island Def Jam. “L.A. was like, ‘Meet me in Miami the day after tomorrow.’ Met him at the studio, played him one song.” (For the record, it was “Fo Yo Sorrows.”) “He was like, ‘Let’s go.’ Like, ‘Have they heard this?’” Two months of negotiations later (“like pulling teeth”), Big Boi had a three-album deal with Def Jam and, amazingly, an actual release date for Sir Lucious. “God bless me that Jive let me go,” he says. “I got to tip my hat to them for giving me the freedom because I could still be on Jive Records with the music not going nowhere.”

While Big Boi’s relief is surely genuine, there’s another reason he’s being so magnanimous. Months before Sir Lucious’s release, Jive — which is not only Big’s old label, but Andre 3000’s and Outkast’s current label — decided they would not clear any of the album’s Andre features. “Had Dre talk to ‘em, he couldn’t work ‘em. The Outkast lawyers, the managers — everybody. They was just real adamant about it. It was sad to me. Why would you want to take that from people? But Dre was like, ‘Don’t bash those people. Don’t make it hard for us.’” Big now intends to go immediately into work for his next solo album — he’s calling it Daddy Fat Sax: Soul Funk Crusader — and, yes, the next Outkast album. Just as soon as Andre finishes work on his own long-rumored solo album, Big Boi promises, it’s on.

That’ll mean a lot more time right here in Stankonia, a place Big Boi clearly adores. The B-room’s his favorite: “Recorded 90 percent [of Sir Lucious] in this room. The music is right up on you. You get the red lights on. Incense, some eucalyptus, spearmint candles, purple. Some crunk juice or maybe some Hennesy, and just go.” He has a lot of verbalized affection for all of Stankonia, from the kitchenette to the vocal booths to the secret lair he has tucked away upstairs, where he sleeps up to three times a week. “No one ever gets to see this,” he says, leading us to a side staircase and up to the man cave: a flat-screen, big cushy couches, and a sub-section housing a bed, where all possible avenues of light have been shuttered. “Pass out, wake up, get right back into it,” Big says. “It’s my own little boom boom room.” There’s also a bar downstairs. It used to be called the Courvoisier Lounge but, since Big Boi’s deal with the company has recently expired, he’s changing the name.

With the tour over, there’s time for a few more questions. And while Big Boi’s ready to move on, we’re not: Is it strange that you ultimately failed to release a solo album on Jive considering the last time you did it — his half of Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which sold 15 million albums — it was a huge success? For a moment, it seems like Big Boi, with three years of frustration pent up, is finally going to unleash. But then he takes a second, gathers himself, answers quietly: “You know what, you would think they would recognize that. Somewhere down the line … ” He trails off. “I don’t know. I think they just wanted an Outkast project and they were trying to stall me out.” He lets that last bit slip without emphasis, but it’s a doozy.

Earlier, Big made it clear these were not the circumstances he expected to find himself in. “People have to understand this was not my decision. Dre wanted to do the solos. I was put in a situation.” So Big Boi made an album without the one guy he’s dying to make an album with, and the fact that that one guy is missing is the single greatest reason why he had so much difficulty releasing the album. And then he stuck with it. “This was not my decision,” he reiterates. “But I’m glad I did it. It turned out lovely.”

Big Boi Shows Vulture Stankonia Studios