The Skinny on Slimm

Slimm Calhoun cuts up as first artist on Aquemini Records

Now what is a cutta? Slimm Calhoun is acting like he’s never heard of Slimm Calhoun before. He must have been looking away recently as he walked by the marquee of the sold-out Fox Theatre, where his name had the audacity to appear next to that of Atlanta’s holiest hip-hop demigods, OutKast. He must not have been paying much attention as he passed hundreds of posters and people wearing T-shirts plastering his face all over Peachtree Street, or as promo vans wrapped with Honda-sized portraits of his mug drove by. None of this matters now, as Calhoun is wholeheartedly engaged in a definition of “to cut,” the operative verb in his new single, “The Cut Song.”

“Cut can mean a lot of things. You can be a cutta.”

Yep, Slimm Calhoun must have forgotten who he is. Because right now, in this career-hinging weekend, less than two hours before he’ll hit the hometown stage with OutKast, and a mere three days before his debut album The Skinny (Aquemini Records) hits the streets, Slimm Calhoun is just chillin’ — having a good time, even. His modest grin reflects the amused disengagement with which he seems to regard the Slimm Calhoun hype machine. As he shares his thoughts on being the first recording artist for OutKast’s own Aquemini label, Calhoun manages to be enthusiastic without being egotistical.

“I’m out here with OutKast, and right now, you know, they’re at the top of their game,” Calhoun says. “The exposure’s just been a whole lot better for me, getting a bigger opportunity to reach out to different people. So, that’s actually one of the better things, coming up under OutKast and being the first artist. It’s a big advantage, most definitely. The hope is that I get a lot of their fans — that they are listening for me, checking for me.”

Calhoun’s connection to OutKast runs much deeper than tour appearances and endorsements, however. Go back beyond his guest appearance on OutKast’s unspeakably successful Stankonia album. Go farther back beyond the two forces’ work together on the Light It Up soundtrack. The young rapper and Atlanta Dungeon Family members’ studio collaboration with Earthtone III, the production collective consisting of OutKast’s Andre Benjamin, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and David “Mr. DJ” Sheats has been many years in the making.

“I hooked up with them through my homeboy, Mr. DJ,” Calhoun says. “He was their original DJ in the group, like on the first OutKast album, Southern-playalistic. I hooked up with him in ‘94. When we got together, that was when he started doing production. I was rapping at the time, and we linked up, and it just started meshing. The first song we did was ‘Timelock.’ I started doing other songs over the years, and we just kept building and building. When I got signed, I basically had an album-worth of songs done. We just kept working, and that’s how it all connected.”

The result of this longstanding connection is The Skinny, a collection of tunes that holds onto a hint of the kooky-rawked-out Stankonia production vibe while firmly establishing Slimm “Cutta” Calhoun as his own complete man. While his working relationship with OutKast has been admittedly tight, Calhoun has his own stylistic direction.

From the Dirty South hoot of “Red Clay,” to the heavy-hearted ghetto lament of “Timelock” to the over-the-top player anthem “It’s OK,” The Skinny is a diverse display of moods. Calhoun refuses to be locked into a definition simply as a G, a player, a reluctant thug or whatever else. The album tells the story of an ordinary someone who has to assume all these extraordinary roles.

“That’s what you have to do,” says Calhoun. “You party sometimes, and you get serious sometimes. That’s basically what it is. It’s just a transition of the things people do throughout the day, or throughout the week, or whatever. That’s basically what the album is about. As far as the basis of the project itself, I wanted to reach everybody everywhere, so, you know, you have to find ways to make it where everybody can get to it. It’s called The Skinny, and that’s the lowdown from different angles all around the board.”

While Calhoun might take a more conventional hip-hop approach than his Aquemini mentors, The Skinny still emphasizes creating memorable, distinctive compositions that push at stylistic boundaries. “How Much Can I” slides along with a tongue-in-cheek silky-smooth R&B sensibility, while the album’s second single, “The Cut Song” throws out hooks in a cuddly P-Funk vocal unison.

“I wanted to make songs,” Calhoun says. “It’s about music for me. I’m the rapper, and then you can put the music or whatever else behind. But I like to try different things. Like even with ‘Well,’ you’ve got the hard guitar, the rock guitar. It was just a transition to something different.”

While the stylistic backdrops of the album shift throughout, Calhoun’s voice stays true to a meaningful direction. Words are seldom wasted in his excitable, usually up-tempo delivery.

“I’m kind of like a street poet,” Calhoun says. “Even with ‘It’s OK,’ it says, ‘All these lonely girls want to cut,’ but if you really listen to the meaning behind the song, it’s more than just ‘all these lonely girls want to cut and that’s why they’re lonely’ — it’s just about being happy. If you’re not happy, you’re going to always look for something else out there.”

All this brings us back to the central question: What is a “cutta”? The answer possesses a Zen-type balance of the raw and the transcendent, like “Cutta” Calhoun himself.

“You know, it has different meanings, but it’s just a sexual connotation. It’s like a 2000 pimp, without the pimpin’.”

So maybe Slimm Calhoun has known who he is all along. Maybe in his comfortable way he knows better than anybody else. And maybe that’s the reason his future looks phat.

The Skinny was released April 10.