As the month marches toward the holiday formerly known as Samhain, one is not left wanting for copious volumes of chocolates and candies. Before anyone even has a chance to switch their calendar pages, the black, orange and yellow bags are stuffed into shelves at grocers and drug stores the country over, offering plenty of pre-holiday temptation. But as many of us learned the hard way, gorging on too much candy makes for a miserable evening (or morning), and while a minor indulgence in the cheap stuff is all well and good, the experience is largely unsatisfying. However, taking some time with a batch of hand-crafted, gourmet candy is often nothing short of delightful.
Phantogram and Big Boi’s first—and possibly only—collaboration as Big Grams is a small helping of that high-quality candy—the real artisanal stuff. It showcases the artists at their most playful and care-free, and the record’s consistent excellence is due in no small part to its meager serving size. This is no slight to the record, as one sign of great artistry is knowing when to duck out, and Big Grams possesses enough depth to satisfy without overstaying its welcome.
Big Grams opens with mutant boss-nova percussion and bubbling argpeggios, before an oozing 808 kick and crisp snare ushers Antwan Patton, aka the rapper known as Big Boi. “I need another lover / Like I need another hole on the side of my temple / Forever blowed” (“Run For Your Life”). Coupled with Sarah Barthel’s reverb-bathed, quasi-gothic beckoning to do “liquid lines” and slide down her “melted face,” “Run For Your Life” functions as an impeccable entry point, introducing the partnership’s sarcastic sense of gravity and psilocybin sex dream textures.
Readily apparent is the mutual respect shared among the collaborators—or as Big Boi puts it, their “best friend shit.” Despite Big Boi’s status as a household name, or the fact Phantogram handles the majority of production, no single artist overpowers the other. The MDMA Angelo-Badalmenti-by-way-of-Broken-Social-Scene of “Lights On” is one of the EP’s most striking examples of this balance, as Big Boi holds tight for almost 3 minutes before jumping in with maybe the most playful and loose verses of his career. (One wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been paying attention to progeny like Chance the Rapper and ILoveMakonnen, adding some fuck-being-in-key singing to his already practiced flow). Elsewhere, Barthel experiments with modern R&B cadences (“Fell in the Sun”) and even does some rapping of her own, with fantastic results. (Phantogram’s other half—Josh Carter—also spits a competent, Q-Tip-esque verse on “Put It On Her”).
Run the Jewels drop by for the positively devastating “Born to Shine.” Killer Mike is at his most gleeful, braggy best (“I walk in Ric Flairin’ / Long fur coat wearin’ / Rolex rockin’ / Silk shirt wearin’ / Silk socks”), followed by El-P, who speaks on the sheer discomfort of existence (“I walk with a spot on me / My life’s a sax solo”). The Phantogram beat is all moaning horns and shambling drums, as Barthel wails on “fuckboy clowns” while “Kill Billin’ up this whole damn house.” The track is another reason to be thankful that, in 2015, the musical climate is one where these disparate artists—already so deep into their respective careers—can come together and make some magic happen, just for the sheer pleasure of doing so.
Some have criticized the record for its lightness (both in length and character), but to do so misconstrues the purpose of projects like these. Big Grams succeeds by documenting the joy of hearing established artists play with each others’ contexts, as well as their own. It’s clear that Big Boi, Barthel and Carter created Big Grams to impress no one but each other, and the result echoes the feel if not approach to August’s Lil B/Chance the Rapper Based Freestyle Mixtape. The shared inspiration documented can be heard and felt, and the giddiness is contagious.
Yes, Big Grams falls short of its contributor’s greatest individual works—but that’s the wrong yardstick by which to measure it. The LP isn’t meant to be a feast, like Eyelid Movies or Sir Lucious Left Foot; it’s pure candy—hand-crafted by some of the best artisans in the game. And on the right night, taken in the right portion, Big Grams is a thing of magic and joy.