You know we live in freakish times when two of pop's most outrageous characters, Andre ''3000'' Benjamin (a.k.a. Dre) and Antwan ''Big Boi'' Patton -- the duo called OutKast -- can walk on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards and be counted among the more understated participants. Of course, they could afford to be: They'd just finished Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a long-awaited pair of solo CDs (out Sept. 23) that, if released separately, would each be a candidate for Hip-Hop Record of the Year. Packaged together, they make a twofer whose ambition flies so far beyond that of anyone doing rap right now (or pop, or rock, or R&B), awards shows may need to create a special category for it.
Forgive the hyperbole, but it's been a while since artists adept at the nitrous-oxide head rush of radio hitmaking have also shown talent for the old-fashioned art of the album. Hip-hop's other reigning visionaries, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, have yet to make a great LP, despite devastating singles; ditto the Neptunes. You need to look back to vintage Prince, Funkadelic, and Sly & the Family Stone for a mix of funky pop and wide-screen aesthetic madness comparable to what you get on ''Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.'' In fact, the set winds down with an environmentalist warning that mirrors the opening of Funkadelic's 1971 mind melter, ''Maggot Brain.'' But there's much more here than recycled influences.
In OutKast's yin and yang, Big Boi is the Everydude -- the neighbor you talk football with, who raises pit bulls and admits a fondness for both corny pop ballads and gangsta rap. So you'd expect ''Speakerboxxx,'' his half of the package, to be fairly straightforward. But it's surprising how far-reaching it is. It kicks off with ''GhettoMusick,'' a machine-gun-speed rap reclaiming '80s electrofunk from hipster ironists while targeting low-aiming rappers: ''You oughta be detained by the hip-hop sheriff/Locked up, no possibility of getting out/Because the s--- you make is killin' me/And my ears and my peers.'' ''Bowtie'' and ''The Rooster'' are good-time anthems with a brass-band swing; ''The Way You Move'' mates a Dirty South synth-drum bounce with a faux Phil Collins hook; and ''War'' gets grimly topical with a chorus of ''tick-tick-boom.'' Things lose some creative steam on posse cuts like ''Last Call'' (with Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz and Slimm Calhoun) and ''Tomb of the Boom'' (with Ludacris and others), but even the old-school tracks have a twist, whether it's Jay-Z rapping the hook of ''Flip Flop Rock,'' or ''Reset,'' with its dice-roll percussion and sermon by Big Boi's Georgia neighbor Cee-Lo. The tradition-minded moments also remind you where all this experimentation is rooted: hip-hop.
And that's important because, judging from the swirling strings and Nat King Cole crooning that begin Dre's deliriously art-damaged ''The Love Below,'' hip-hop tradition is fairly low on the list -- at least until the Beatles-referencing finale, ''A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete),'' an autobiographical epistolary to an ex that lays deep rap testifying over a laptop-techno-beat blur. Between these poles is as strange and rich a trip as pop offers nowadays, a song cycle about love's battle against fear and (self-) deception that's frequently profound, hilarious, and very, very sexy. It's long -- okay, maybe overlong -- on skits and stylistic spelunking (see the John Coltrane-meets-Roni Size cover of ''My Favorite Things''). But it's filled with so many pure ass-moving pleasures, you're happy to indulge its excesses. ''Hey Ya!'' is the no-strings-sex-championing single, and maybe the two discs' catchiest moment. But ''Happy Valentine's Day'' comes close: a half-spoken, half-rapped soliloquy by Cupid, reimagined here as a pistol-packing gangster of love whose hand-clapping denouement should become as linked to its titular holiday as ''White Christmas.'' On ''Dracula's Wedding,'' Dre's a vampire -- or a rap star -- who's met his match (''I've cast my spell on millions, but I'm terrified of you''). And on ''Vibrate,'' a pitch to uplift the human race through music bobs alongside cool muted trumpets in a whirlpool of backward drumbeats.
Dre sings more than raps here, which could be a problem, as his nasal drawl isn't the greatest instrument. But hip-hop, like punk, is about making magic with limited means through the sheer force of creative will, and whether he's cooing baby noises on the Goth-soul cha-cha ''Pink & Blue'' or scatting with multiplatinum siren Norah Jones on the interlude ''Take Off Your Cool,'' Dre's limitations read here like strengths. With ''Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,'' his lonely Day-Glo lothario and Big Boi's wise-thug MC have made an LP that offers an outsize artistic vision, not focus-group ''perfection,'' as the route to a mass audience. They may be wrong, but you'll be very glad to go along for the ride.