#359 on Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time.
Hey Ya. These two words changed the face of pop music. Wait... is ‘ya’ even a word? My word processor says no. Ah... well... You know what I’m getting at. In the past few years, OutKast has risen to the top of the heap. Their 2003 hip hop double album opus, Speakerboxx/The Love Below found them catapulted into a grand audience, well beyond that of the average hip hop group. Before that, 1998 produced the brilliant Aquemini, their first offering fully realizing the nature of their game. And in between, they found enough time to give us Stankonia.
Since Aquemini, OutKast have been the prodigal hip-hop artists. Jay Z may have staked claim on the ‘King of Hip Hop’ crown but clearly, OutKast proved to be the most forward thinking, unique, consistent and creative force in popular hip hop. Musically, they’ve run the gamut. A scan of their library would find cuts emblazoned by dub reggae, soul, gospel, southern seasoned riffs and of course the George Clinton influenced space-funk psychedelia they do so well. Organized Noize, primary OutKast production team and fellow Atlanta natives, are responsible for much of the musical foundation; the three-man team worked with the duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi on and off throughout the years creating the polar opposite to the established southern hip hop scene’s sound, most notably, that of Master-P and his No-Limit cronies. Consequently, the diverse nature of the group’s music led to an existence on the cusp of popularity within their genre in their early years. Further removing themselves from contemporaries, OutKast’s lyrics proved to be increasingly substantial as the years passed. There’s definitely more De La Soul than gangsta posturing here and while they may have name checked Mercedes and the sticky icky without hesitation, the combination of the streetwise and philosophical was more often the rule, not the exception. As Dre puts it:
‘I met a critic, I made her **** her drawers
She said she thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol
I said "Oh hell naw!" But yet it's that too;
You can't discrimi-hate cause you done read a book or two.’
In a lot of ways, OutKast is that perfect balance, daring enough to bring in new crowds with every new album, conscious enough to appeal to what most mainstream listeners assume hip-hop is. Forward looking, yet, able to use the past to its benefit. ‘Gasoline Dreams’ follows a liquid-sexual introduction, completely contradicting the opening. It’s abrasive and on attack right from the opening, a sound in debt to classic hardcore/political rap acts like Public Enemy, Ice-T or N.W.A. It’s hard to imagine a hip hop group able to successfully take the scathing attack of artists like those, yet come up with soulful, laid back tracks like later cuts on the album. But that’s the nature of OutKast’s game. In fact, they utilize this ability right away making an interlude-aided transition into the butter-smooth ‘So Fresh, So Clean,’ which combines the tradition of rappers and braggadocio with seductiveness laced among weirdness capable only by lyricists who refer to themselves as Possum Aloysius Jenkins and Francis the Savannah Chitlin Pimp.
As far as mainstream success goes, Stankonia is not short of it. ‘Mrs. Jackson’ and ‘B.O.B.’ were huge hits, and once again, allude to the captivating variation of OutKast. How many odes to a baby’s momma have you heard with more conviction than ‘Mrs. Jackson’? It may not sound like too touching of subject matter, but that’s the catch, they tackle the situation with both tongue-in-cheek lyrics and sincerity. The somber effect-ridden beat trudges along, sparsely backed by synths and keys during the hook, which are another focal point in OutKast’s attack; Andre croons his apologies to the song’s namesake, shades of the catchy, poppy direction he decided to go with later on his section of the latest release. But with B.O.B., we once again find ourselves staring at OutKast’s other face. B.O.B.(Bombs Over Bagdad) is drum ‘n bass assault at a frantic pace with perhaps one of the best guitar solos in hip hop history. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this track, though, is the rapid-fire delivery our favorite duo. B.O.B. is the kind of song that gave OutKast the reputation as one of the best live shows hip hop had to offer, as they, along with contemporaries such as The Roots and Black Eyed Peas among others began to implement live instrumentation into their acts, which is still horribly under utilized within hip hop recordings.
Of course, with most glorified pop albums, the real gems are not the singles but the songs too genius for air-play. These might include, depending on who you ask: the pseudo afro-beat energy of ‘Humble Mumble’ featuring Eryka Badu helping out on vocals, sexual appreciation 101 tune, ‘I’ll Call Before I Come,’ an intensely psychedelic love song, ‘Slum Beautiful,’ the closing drone-fest of ‘Stankonia (Stanklove)’ (which doesn’t work on my copy any more, and is a personal favorite of mine dammit,) the hip hop equivalent of a hardcore song, the 1:28 long ‘‘‘ and the cancer-serious suicide dirge of ‘Toilet Tisha’ among others. Actually, pretty much any given track has a lot of upside (read: Andre’s verses) with the exception of the album’s one flub, ‘We Luv Deez Hoez.’ Yes, we do love ‘em. We probably don’t need a song about ‘em.
In addition to ‘We Luv Deez Hoez,’ Stankonia, like many a hip-hop album before it, suffers from another failing... interludes. Most of the interludes are bearable really, not so much filler as simply unnecessary. Like all hip hop interludes, they may initially be clever, even funny. But that never lasts. It’s just nitpicking, though. In fact, I love ‘Cruisin the ATL.’
At the heart of OutKast is the contradiction. At the heart of contradiction for OutKast, is Andre and Big Boi. The reason OutKast has been so successful is because each plays off the other so perfectly and the result can be quite magnificent in terms of music in general and not just hip hop, as exemplified by both Aquemini and Stankonia. If today, OutKast decided to split rght now, as much speculation (which is probably just that) might lead us to think, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that OutKast produced a better album than this. Speakerboxx/The Love Below is a great piece of work but you know what hurts it? The ‘/.’