It's hard to know where OutKast ends and Big Boi begins.
For more than 15 years, Big Boi has been one half of the renowned Georgia-based hip-hop duo. OutKast grew so big over the years - winning several Grammy awards and selling millions of albums - it's become almost impossible for Big Boi to step out of OutKast's shadow.
He's done movies. He's released singles that have absolutely nothing to do with the flamboyant Andre 3000, OutKast's other member. And Sunday, when Big Boi will be at Merriweather Post Pavilion as part of the Rock the Bells festival tour, Andre 3000 will be nowhere in sight. On the tour, Big Boi joins a star-studded lineup that includes headliners Nas, Damian Marley, Busta Rhymes and the Roots.
But all of this still hasn't established Big Boi as a solo artist.
"That's the crazy thing about it," said Rod "Madd Flava" Stevens, the host of Rap Attack on hip-hop radio station 92Q.
"When you go and see him do those shows, you're like, 'OK, it's great to see you,' but it would be great to see Andre walk out too."
Big Boi's struggle to strike out as a solo artist stretches back to Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Though packaged together under the OutKast umbrella, the double album was originally intended as two separate solo efforts. But there was still plenty of crossover: Andre guest-starred on Big Boi's album and Big Boi made an appearance on Andre's album. Speakerboxx/The Love Below won three Grammys and topped the charts. Critics fawned over the album's experimentation, and dubbed Big Boi and Andre the Beatles of hip-hop.
If Big Boi was the Paul McCartney of hip-hop then, he's the Axl Rose of hip-hop now. For the past three years, he's been working on an Andre-less solo album, complete with big-name guest stars and top-notch production. But the album has yet to materialize.
It was supposed to be released last summer. Then it was supposed to hit shelves last fall. Surely, the album would be out in early 2009, Big Boi assured us. Now, the album is tentatively set to drop in a couple of months, he said.
"It's coming out soon," Big Boi said. "I'm in the process of working out a little business thing real quick with the label. I'm going to have an announcement to make in a couple weeks."
From the start, OutKast has been over the top - in almost every way. Andre and Big Boi made a name for themselves through outrageous outfits and colorful rhymes done in dizzying speed.
On the single "I Like the Way You Move," Big Boi blitzes through lines in his trademark laid-back delivery: "So click-it or ticket, let's see your seat belt fastened / Trunk rattlin', like two midgets in the back seat wrestlin' / Speakerboxxx vibrate the tag / Make it sound like aluminum cans in the back." His soft, low-pitched voice makes him sound as if he never breaks a sweat in studio.
Live, Big Boi sports big sunglasses, flashy jewelry and looser-fitting clothing. He's the thuggier one of the two. Andre's fashion sense is off the charts. He has sported everything from a pink shirt with a green polka dot bow tie to bright green jockey get-up. But in the years since OutKast released the Idlewild album/movie project in 2006, the two have rarely shared the stage.
Between then and now, Big Boi has released a few singles here and there. "Sumthin's Gotta Give," featuring Mary J. Blige, and another, titled "Royal Flush," came out digitally last year. But neither has generated much buzz.
Stevens, the 92Q DJ, spun "Sumthin's Gotta Give" once or twice on his show. The song didn't catch, he said.
"It wasn't a strong single," Stevens said. "He had a big pop star like Mary J. Blige on the single, and it still didn't do anything."
Big Boi went back to the drawing board, and came up with 16 new tracks and a new direction for the album. He is performing four of them on the Rock the Bells tour, including a track called "General Patton." No, it's not named after the World War II general. It's named after Big Boi himself, whose legal name is Antwan Andre Patton.
How does the new crop of songs sound? For now, Big Boi's not being specific.
"The songs are definitely what you would get from me," he said. "You have to hear it to know what's going on. ... I'm talking about life. Nothing specific."
The songs might be different, but the title hasn't changed. Staying true to OutKast tradition of bizarre album names (Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Stankonia, etc.), it's called Sir Luscious Left Foot ... The Son of Chico Dusty. Back when he was an Air Force pilot, Big Boi's father was nicknamed Chico Dusty. And Sir Luscious Left Foot is Big Boi's new alter ego.
"It's my grown-man persona, definitely," he said. "I always wanted to get on the good foot."
This coming from a man who, at one point, was known as Hot Tub Tony.
"Hot Tub Tony is a name I came up with in the hot tub," he said. "That's my more flamboyant guy."
After Sir Luscious Left Foot ... The Son of Chico Dusty comes out - if it comes out - Andre will release his own solo effort, Big Boi said. Then the two will put out another OutKast album. They've already started work on the OutKast project, Big Boi said.
Since the album Aquemini came out in 1998, Andre and Big Boi have had a quasi-long-distance working relationship. Each of them has a home studio, where they record parts of songs. Then they share their work for the finished project.
"Songs come all different kinds of ways," he said. "A beat might inspire it or a conversation might inspire it. ... It's teamwork."
But Big Boi isn't dishing any details about the forthcoming OutKast project, either. He's being tight-lipped about the songs themselves - and the timetable they're working with.
"We've said we wouldn't really discuss it until when it was ready, ready, ready," he said. "Then people would be thinking it's coming yesterday. It's definitely in the works, though."
Just like that solo album.
If you go
The Rock the Bells festival tour starts noon Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $51-$101. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.