Can this marriage be saved? For most of the '90s, childhood pals and OutKast cofounders André Benjamin and Antwan ''Big Boi'' Patton were the most innovative partners in hip-hop. But they haven't collaborated extensively in six years (their 2003 multiplatinum double CD, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, consisted of separate solo discs). Unfortunately, OutKast's seventh album, Idlewild, doesn't do much to suggest the group has a bright future. Instead, it finds the duo still going their own ways as they face a dubious challenge: how to wedge rap vocals into Depression-era swing, blues, and vaudeville arrangements. It all plays out in the soundtrack to a movie musical set in the mythical 1930s Georgia town of Idlewild. If this is the multimedia spectacle the OutKast brain trust has selected to punctuate their transition from Dirty South musical pioneers into pop megadandies, it's a bust.
In the movie and on the disc, the guys play roles not far removed from those on their previous albums: Big Boi as the neon hustler, Dré as the eccentric artiste. OutKast have stretched rap's boundaries to the breaking point before, but this time their experiments come across as gimmicky or strained. In the words of one particularly aimless track, ''Makes No Sense at All,'' it's too much ''blah, blah...blah, blah.''
Dré and Big Boi can still be potent as a team (such as it is; even for their joint cuts, they recorded most of their parts separately). The Dré-produced ''Morris Brown'' allows Big Boi to riff off rapper Scar and singer Sleepy Brown while a college marching band drops some serious funk. On ''Mighty 'O,''' they trade verses with fervor over a smile-inducing Cab Calloway-style sing-along. But that's about it for collaboration, a major reason why this 78-minute album sounds so flabby.
Their shortcomings are more apparent when they're apart, especially when it comes to Dré, who seems a lot more interested in singing these days. His wang-dang-doodling on the harmonica-laced ''Idlewild Blue'' and jivey histrionics on the jumping ''PJ & Rooster'' never approach the authority of his rapping. Big Boi's sensitive-pimp flow invigorates the introspective breakup ballad ''Peaches'' and the vagabond's manifesto ''The Train,'' but his feisty musical conversations with Dré are missed.
Meandering tunes such as ''Mutron Angel,'' ''BuggFace,'' and nearly nine interminable minutes of ''A Bad Note'' ratchet up the filler quotient to an intolerable level. In the past, even OutKast's throwaways held allure. On Idlewild, they come across like the doodlings of masters who have let their relationship and once-impeccable musical standards slip.