Check Out Our Handmade Birthday Cards from James Franco, ScarJo, Diddy & More

In case you didn’t catch Barack Obama’s presidential address last Saturday, this month marks fifteen years of BlackBook. We’re so excited that we published an entire issue loosely themed around it, and tonight, at the Olive Garden in Times Square, we’re throwing a party to celebrate it. (You’re invited!) But what would a 15th anniversary be without 15 former cover stars sending you 15 birthday cards? The answer is nothing! So with that in mind, here’s an exclusive gallery of birthday greetings from the 15 most thoughtful former cover stars a magazine could ask for.

Morning Links: Outkast Readying New Album, Nicki Minaj’s Cousin Murdered in Brooklyn

● Impassioned scribbler Cy Twombly, who’s career “slyly subverted Abstract Expressionism, toyed briefly with Minimalism, seemed barely to acknowledge Pop Art and anticipated some of the concerns of Conceptualism,” lost his battle with cancer yesterday at the age of 83. [NYT] ● “WHAT!!!!???!!!! CASEY ANTHONY FOUND NOT GUILTY!!!! I AM SPEECHLESS!!!” tweeted Kim Kardashian as the Casey Anthony verdict was read, recalling for many the role her father played in O.J. Simpson’s acquittal. [KimKardashian/Twitter] ● Someone who knows says that, along with solo projects from Big Boi and Three Stacks, Outkast is gearing up to release a new album next year. Even one of the three would be a win. [HipHopWired]

● Joseph Gordon-Levitt is working alongside It Books, a HarperCollins imprint, to produce a series of books featuring short stories submitted by the public called The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories. [NYDN] ● Nicki Minaj was left devastated by the death of her cousin, Nicholas Telemanque, who was shot outside his home in Brooklyn. [RS] ● Five-year-old Kingston Rossdale looks extra-fly with his new blue mohawk. [Us]

Unsurprisingly, Big Boi Has Recorded the Best Rap Album of the Year

The album opens with a lone Spaghetti-Western whistle, conjuring images of abandoned, tumbleweed-strewn streets and swinging saloon doors. Suddenly, we hear a dirty keyboard line reminiscent of the futuristic gallop of Timbaland’s “Pony.” Next comes a watery wah-infused guitar line, then a pounding piano, and finally, cucumber-cool crooning echoed by a gritty, talk-box-warped wail. This is the eclectic, infectious sound of Big Boi’s Cadillac convertible cruising into town after far too long. And as the intro fades, we hear the man himself boast, “Damn, and that wasn’t nothing but the intro.”

Sure enough, Sir Luscious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty, Outkast emcee Big Boi’s much-delayed solo debut, only gets better from there, with the rapper skillfully navigating a slew of kaleidoscopic, fun and funky beats, from the epic, orchestral “General Patton” to the soulful “Be Still” (featuring a sublime Janelle Monae).

“It’s a funk-filled adventure,” says Big Boi, calling from his Atlanta home a few days before the record’s release. “It’s some of my best work that I’ve ever done. I put a lot of time into it. No two songs sound alike. It’s lyrically interesting; and you know, the whole Luscious Leftfoot thing is basically, Luscious Leftfoot is like a graduation of Big Boi. It’s almost like when Luke Skywalker became a Jedi. I’m a master at my craft. You know what I mean? Like the Karate Kid whooping ass.”

Big Boi isn’t kidding when he says he sunk a lot of time into the project. “I started the album on Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2007, and I mastered it on [Outkast partner] Andre 3000’s birthday, May 27th of this year, so it’s been like 40 months almost.”

Forty months. Let’s put that in perspective. Gucci Mane–-the mash-mouthed emcee featured on Big Boi’s superb Harold Melvin-flipping new single “Shine Blockas”–-released one major-label album, one EP, and six long-ass mixtapes in 2009 alone. (He also finished a jail term and started a new one. How’s that for productive?) Like Gucci, most mainstream rappers need to be prolific in order to remain relevant. Their lyrics are littered with rapidly expiring references to fashion, politics, and pop-culture, and their records are riddled with trendy producers, hook singers and guest rappers. If your average hip-hop artist released a record he’d started in 2007, it would sound like 2007.

But Big Boi outings are less time capsules than time machines. He could sit on an album for decades and it would still sound forward-facing upon release. After all, he’s half of Outkast, arguably the most commercially successful avant-garde artists in hip-hop history. He doesn’t chase trends; he sets them. Says Big Boi, “The object of the game is to never follow the trends. You make music that’s true to you. The music that I make is very experimental. A lot of the stuff is put together in ways that are very non-traditional and they’re just very different grooves. From the rhyme cadences down to the beat patterns, it’s all about a new sound.”

Unfortunately, Jive, Outkast’s long-time label, failed to appreciate this fact, telling Big Boi that Sir Luscious Leftfoot was too artistic to be marketable. Of course, since Outkast had already earned the company millions of dollars despite anti-single singles like the high-speed aggro-funk-rap classic “B.O.B.,” it seems like the real problem was Andre 3000’s absence. “I think they might have put a little more effort into it [had it been an Outkast album], but I don’t think they would have cared what the songs sounded like as long as it was both of us on the same song. It’s a total disregard for the music itself. Music is an expression of you and your mind, body and soul. They wanted more cookie-cutter type records and I don’t do that.”

And so, Big Boi dropped Jive–just as Clipse, the label’s other critically-acclaimed Southern rap duo, had done three years earlier. Thankfully, Def Jam head LA Reid, the man who signed a teenaged Big Boi and Andre 18 years and 25-million records ago, who stepped up to put Sir Luscious Leftfoot out.

This brings us to Friday before the album’s release, hours after Big Boi has dropped the promotional, career-spanning Big Boi Mixtape for Dummies. And while it is sort of sad to think that one of the coolest, most creative and commercially accomplished rappers of all time needs any such introduction, it’s also exciting to think that some get to hear Big Boi’s Cadillac roll into town for the first time. As old fans rediscover Big Boi’s focused exuberance on irrepressible, funk-laden new singles like “Shutterbug,” countless uninitiated will unearth Outkast oldies like “Hootie Hoo” and “ATLiens.” No doubt, these tracks are as fresh and directional as ever.