Arista/BMG - 2003 - 135 minutes

The return of one of hip-hop's more interesting bands was always going to be a welcome event, and when it turns out to be a bumper double album there's even more reason to rejoice. The project began when Andre 3000 Benjamin began working on a solo album. Before long his partner Big Boi decided to follow suit. Rather than going head to head with competing releases, the boys decided to conjoin the two into an epic Siamese twins-style celebration of Southern funk.

Trying to squeeze two opinions of two such different and interesting albums into one review seems almost unfair. Of the two, 'Speakerboxx' is more hip-hop orientated while 'The Love Below' takes a multi-faceted trip through the pantheon of black music.

'Speakerboxx's standouts - 'Ghetto Musick', 'The Way You Move' and 'War' are streets ahead of the major label dross that currently masquerades as hip-hop. Musically playful, lyrically intelligent, 'Speakerboxx' would be an outstanding album on its own.

But the real trip begins on the second CD. 'The Love Below' kicks off with a sweeping lounge orchestration that spells "Romance", then a distorted electric guitar crackles, and we're into uptempo cocktail bar jazz, complete with Andre 3000 crooning like a deranged Sammy Davis Jr. By the next song, Andre is communing with the Lord. An acoustic guitar gently noodles in the background, as he naughtily insists that all he wants is a "sweet bitch" and that "head ain't cheatin." The theme continues on the brilliant 'Happy Valentine's Day', a song that brimming with vitality, creativity and funkiness.

Lyrically, 'The Love Below' is all about, well, the love below, if you get my drift. From lovelorn sincerity to pure filth, Andre 3000 visits every colour of the romantic rainbow, with guests Kelis and Norah Jones playing his amours. 'The Love Below' is a stupendously exciting, if occasionally indulgent, record, and definitely not family listening.

The scale and ambition of 'Speakerboxx'/'The Love Below', their sheer fun and variety recalls epic albums by black artists like Prince's 'Sign 'O' The Times' and Stevie Wonder's 'Songs In The Key Of Life'. A heady mix of 60s pop, deep funk, singalong soul, ghetto hip-hop, smooth jazz, soft rock and drum'n'bass, this is like an entire record collection in one double CD.

With excellent boundary-pushing albums from the Roots and Common earlier this year, hip-hop's fusion movement is gathering pace. Get Outkast, on the double.

Luke McManus

Speakerboxx Tracklisting: Intro - GhettoMusick - Unhappy - Bowtie - The Way You Move - The Rooster - Bust - War - Church - Bamboo (Interlude) - Tomb Of The Boom - E-Mac (Interlude) - Knowing - Flip Flop Rock - Interlude - Reset - D-Boi (Interlude) - Last Call - Bowtie (Postlude)

The Love Below Tracklisting: The Love Below (Intro) - Love Hater - God (Interlude) - Happy Valentine's Day - Spread - Where Are My Panties? - Prototype - She Lives In My Lap - Hey Ya! - Roses - Good Day, Good Sir - Behold A Lady - Pink & Blue - Love In War - She's Alive - Dracula's Wedding - My Favorite Things - Take Off Your Cool - Vibrate - A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre (incompete)