OutKast photo from MySpace
Stankonia Rules: The PrequelBefore the Bush progeny shook their Polaroids or their un-Stankonian begetter bombed Baghdad; in a world without "Hey Ya!" before Dré prematurely discovered the year 3000 and Big Boi slowed his flow down to a whisper; in a different millennium when not everyone + Ken Burns knew about crunk, a three-part history of OutKast and their first trio of albums:
by Drew Hinshaw, NYU '07
In the year 1994, rap has come to a question mark. Along the West Coast, Death Row Records has usurped control of the gangsta scene and the movement's farcical frontman, Eazy-E, passed to AIDS. Above the Rim is in theatres, the soundtrack is in stores, and in 2Pac, the tyrant Suge Knight has absorbed an eminence much less housebroken than even his crime-addled mega-label can contain. In the East, "Juicy" and "Big Poppa" have broken Biggie's career, simultaneously revising a new era of black consciousness by imposing unrestrained high capitalism over the despair of cautionary stories. In ten introspective and narrative tracks, Nas's acrobatically accomplished debut, Illmatic, has reintroduced Marcus Garvey to the vanguard generation. Striking from fictional Shaolin, The 36 Chambers: Enter the Wu-Tang, tears past any number of rap faux pas, counterbalancing artsy oddness with five-percenter rhetoric. And, these are the last and greatest days of a closing generation of bohemian rap groups: Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Pharcyde. Quest puts out Midnight Marauders in 1993 and Digable Planet follows up their own 1993 debut with Blowout Comb in 1994 before a changing landscape fossilizes them all.
In Georgia, little else but Freaknik's on--a big party by all of the South's historically black colleges that would shut Atlanta down for a week and incubate a whole hip-hop scene. From TLC's Atlanta, it'd take a fourteen-hour country drive to reach the nearest scene, Miami. For Dré and Big Boi, rightly named OutKast, detachment is translating into what continues to be their defining trait: a distance, in geography and identity, a refusal to recognize accepted borders or limits. From the beginning, through Stankonia into André's Souix-in-Space themed performance at the 2004 Grammys, the group has always played alien. And where George Clinton's aliens may have come searching for a Saturday shindig on earth, these two have come for a more weekday set of aims: truth, peace of mind, and for Big Boi the un-pimp-able she. In December of 1993, they team up with La Face producers Organized Noize to release a Christmas song about "black man's heaven"-- involving "low riders, 77' Sevilles," certain quantities of weed, a shout-out to students at a community college, and a defiant, Black refusal to deck the halls in a chimney-less hood. When the single, "Player's Ball," carries into late January, CEO L.A. Reid has the track's sleighbells muted, replaces the words "Christmas day" with "ev'ryday," and watches the tune pierce top forty. Finally, sometime in the thunderstorm-paddled wake of Freaknik that is late April in Atlanta, Southernplayalisticadillacfunkymuzik is released.
In the context of 1994, the album made no memorable mark on the national scene. In the OutKast discography, it is often written off as their boilerplate street record, the hip-hop equivalent of Thom Yorke's "Creep." In its poor execution, however, it is also one of their most revealing. Both are directly out of high school, still in the process of leaving delinquency behind. Their ideas, while as unusual and surprisingly appropriate as anything they'd ever pull off, aren't nearly as well-executed or fleshed-out as the bold strokes of Aquemini or Stankonia. Nor are their lyrical stances: "Git Up, Git Out" ("Don't spend all your time tryin' to get high") directly precedes the lethargic "Crumbling 'Erb." With a penchant for live bass lines, guitar solos, and P-Funk horn lines that continues until today, they are navigating an odd fusion between the local Arrested Development and the ubiquitous Dr. Dré. In contrast to both acts, they seem gratified by some refreshingly modest pleasures: Heineken and Coca-Cola over Moet, Cadillacs over Bentleys, block parties, weed. Nobody's crossing entire continents to slang rocks, as in Ready to Die, nor is anyone following Nas back to Afrocentricity, not yet anyway. Cops get ridiculed at every turn, but no one's mass murdering sergeants. While they acknowledge their criminal tendencies, they implicitly or explicitly acknowledge two other realities: the moral and juridical consequences and the legal system's unfairness towards blacks in the first place. The record is both gangsta and positive, feet planted in a thick if crude layer of black righteousness where the two contradict.
"Big Boi on my left/André's on my right,"
Today, OutKast's two principals are defined by their dissimilarity. Big Boi likes to rap and screw, André likes to falsetto and flirt. Supposedly. Their story is mostly about the two working out creative differences towards a better end, culminating in the brave if flawed Speakerboxx/TheLove Below. On Southernplayalistic, however, their distinctions are, to an outside ear, almost inaudible. To a Southern ear they each exemplify old stereotypes. Big Boi is a coastal Southerner, born in Savannah where vowels are elongated, words are further slurred, and century-old ways are set in molasses. He comes from a climate where conformity is not required nor individuality fully understood or trusted. Still, for whatever reasons he puts his faith in André, a tightly wound product of an industrial city. Dré's consonants are sharp, and he often drops forms of the verb "to be" entirely. Like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, he is wedged in a multiracial society, under strong pressure to conform, and spends much of his youth between phases - thug, Rasta, high-minded genie, love-hater. In a major exception for rap, neither Christianity nor Islam is ever a really a part of him.
Rastafarianism is only a brief detour between albums, coextensive with his courtship of future wife Erykah Baduh. Surprisingly, it is André who drops out of high school and is nearly lost to crime, while Big Boi graduates with a 3.6 GPA and aspirations to be, of all things, a child psychologist. Regardless, both are immersed in the poverty -- and distinct culture - of East Point, a charter city within Atlanta. Furthermore, both seem intent on escaping their circumstances, not just to a world of excess and sloth, but to a kind of unknown spiritual betterment, the details of which they are still struggling to define.
This has been an undertaking of OutKast's from the beginning- to realize a new place for black men in popular culture, a utopia far different from, and much more plausible and lasting, than any club reserved for Diddy--or for that matter, a happening more appealing than the educational summer camp of each-one-teach-one Arrested Development. In short, a barbecue, not a church or a bling-and-Cristal party.
EPISODE TWO- ATLiens
It's 1996, Tupac has only months to live, or to plot his death, or to contemplate his supposed persecution. The Source Awards have ended in violence, as anything should that drinks to the gross excess of Biggie Smalls in a hotel room. Radio towers are sinking from the weight of the braggadocio spewing out of them. In Atlanta, the Bankhead Bounce and crunk, the music a person from Bankhead bounces to, is sprouting hair--thanks the popularization of the term, by an unknown knave of a novelty act, the Eastside Boyz, whose hit claims, "I Bet You Won't Get Crunk." Lots of handclaps in that tune.
Further south than the most playalistic of Cadillacs, André Benjamin is in Jamaica, studying first hand the spatial sparseness of dub reggae and also Rastafari: a religion of Spartan woodsmen, technophobes, poetic philosophers, and above all outcasts. On his head he wears a turban as dreadlock coverage, and he has begun to doodle - and have sewn for him - his own clothing. As work on the next album begins, he forgoes alcohol and weed. Unsure of the group's future, Big Boi has started a kennel business, and both are lost somewhere in the vacuum between poverty and Kingdom Cash, still having to make ends meet. LaFace Records, surprised and content with Southernplayalistic, gives them the go-ahead to do what they wish for project two.
The cover and booklet for ATLiens is presented as a one-dollar comic book designed by André Benjamin himself: it tells the story of two OutKasts, from the lost city of Atlantis, who team together to battle an army of drones ("the Dark Horde") sent to conquer the music industry, and destroy the last of the lost scrolls of wisdom buried beneath Atlantis. L.A. Reid has been imprisoned, replaced by a mindless clone; Goodie Mob and Organized Noise come to join the two OutKasts, and in the end, a Newt Gingrich-like captain of the Dark Horde is narrowly thwarted with the haunting last words, "To Be Continued . . . "
ATLiens is not a perfect record, though no track really lags behinds another. It is certainly not their most commercial, nor their most lyrically profound. It is the only album in which André doesn't sing, by far the most minimal of a flamboyantly orchestrated discography -- and without a doubt, it is one of the "preachiest" rap albums since the ordination of Rev. Run. They are sermonizing in a way they wouldn't try twice. After this record, they would blend into their role as entertainers, sliding lyrics of equal weight behind much richer instrumentation than on the sparse ATLiens. ("Hey Ya!" "B.O.B."). Maybe enough had changed in the two years since Southernplayalistic that it became necessary, in their second album, to openly celebrate the hip-hop tradition. With no talk of mics, only street-level lyricism, album one had done nothing of the sort. Here, turntables are used ubiquitously, short samples are mangled past recognition, and not a single hook recognizes the sovereignty of Mariah Carey. The record, as dub-inspired as Kool Herc had been, is Clinton-era Atlanta's take on the old guard's "just beats-and-rhymes" ethos. In a time when hip-hop was spinning away from its origins into a world of R&B-laden high-life, this universe-themed album comes as close to planet earth as any in its class.
Across the album, but most notably on "Wheels of Steel" and "Mainstream," OutKast justifies and expands on what was said in Southernplayalistic. "Wheels of Steel" tells a series of stories dealing with the routine botheration of growing up poor; the chorus speaks to the power of a DJ to provide an escape. Over a drum pattern danceable even by Southern standards, OutKast uses Southernplayalistic lyrical themes and a hook sewn from the fabric of an Afrikaa Bambataa set to validate their newly adopted beats-and-rhymes framework. Moving on to "Mainstream," they defend their almost evangelical change in lyrical message by making a complicated case against the current popular culture. If "Wheels of Steel" sells the new minimal form, "Mainstream" details the reasons for the departure in content. The first words, spoken by Goodie Mob's T-Mo over a plodding beat, are "revolutionary/scary/ thought-provoking spoken words." The hook speaks to the ways the reality of black America is glorified and ignored on pop radio: "Think it is when it ain't all peaches and cream/ That's why some are found, floating face-down in the mainstream." In his own verse, André lauds acts whose "alma mater be that [they] follow/ bite whatever looks tasty, water it down and then swallow." Big Boi laments the popularity of Kangols and notes, "You think it's all about your clothes? It's all about yourself, how you feel about your life." For a duo on the front of an emerging, autonomous scene of dance music -- far removed from the South Bronx Vatican -- both are risking the stigma of backpacking. ATLiens was a strong test of OutKast's commercial instincts. To compensate for the sudden change in trajectory, they sharply define rhythmic elements in the production, melodicize verses and throw hooks around like sinking pirates. Some of their catchiest moments, are here ("throw yo' hands in the ay-er!"), and, with the vocals in the foreground, they masterfully accommodate "knowledge" within a "flow." There's no question that ATLiens threw the fanbase for a loop; what's more notable however, is the slim margin by which the record caught on anyway. In a move that could have broken their career, they effectively diverted a developing movement from ruining itself by going national, instilling something positive in their reluctant following. Southern rap wears the merit badge to this day, and, in a couple of years, the Futuristic Space-Preachers would make amends.
EPISODE THREE/FINAL SHOWDOWN- AQUEMINI
Or, "Back From Space, with Blues Harps and Synthesizers, The Player, Poet, Return and Restore"
Fading into end-of-the-millenium booty shake radio heel-toes "Rosa Parks." BBQ chicken is back, marinated in a viscous black righteous brew. Reminder from OutKast: "Hush that fuss . . . We [still] the type of people make the club get crunk."
On advice of a gypsy, the Aquarian and the Gemini have returned to earth to resuscitate the damper-pulse of ATLiens into a 140-bpm masterpiece, the world's only bootyshake concept-album. If ATLiens had left doubts as to the duo's intentions, Aquemini both confirmed and assuaged those fears. Using those fierce commercial instincts of theirs to "talk about time traveling/rhyme javelin, something mind unraveling," the two made sense of the schism between the popular and the reasonable. The product was medicinal. As said one critic, "Hearing `Rosa Parks' on the radio, sandwiched between posthumous Tupac and Biggie singles, Britney Spears, and jokes about Clinton's taste in cigars was like hearing an affirmation of our cultural sanity. No, the song was saying, commercial music doesn't have to suck." Or, from Rolling Stone, Aquemini "proved you don't have to sell out to sell records."
You could call it their last "rap" album. Without dabbling in the avant-garde excess of Stankonia songs like "Slum Beautiful" and "Gasoline Dream,"--though "Spottieottiedopaliscious" and "Chonkyfire" come close--Aquemini proves how colorful, varied, and touching their musical home-turf can be. David Banner claims it made him cry. It was the last time the two working together would seem like a natural, desirable decision, not an obstacle to be overcome through packaging. Soon, we'd have Dré-less "Ha Ha Ha We Luv Deez Hoes," and the Boi-less suicide story "Toilet Tisha." At that juncture, Stankonia, with its tracks called '?' and recurrent drum'n'bass patterns, would herald the realization of OutKast as an experimentalist pop act, Sgt. Pepper with a fro. If on Speakerboxx/Love Below and Stankonia they, or at least Dré, seemed gutted and confined by rap, on Aquemini they are both engrossed, amused, and the same time in command of the form they'd later forsake. It is the coming of age of OutKast, not as a pop act, but a pink prize pig of a Southern hip-hop team, their domination of their native scene. And having pigeonholed themselves into transforming styles on an every album, they could never return.
Which is not to send Aquemini off as a reconciliation in the wake of ATLiens, for the purposes of setting up Stankonia; or to commend it for its commerciality, or award it for its observation of the southern laws of hip-hop. It's just that the two work -- and innovate - best when given sharper lines within which to use their 256 P-Funk crayons. Prime subtlety floods the background of this album, from the grand orchestration buried beneath "Return of the G" to the lyrical subtlety of Dré's first verse on the title track, recounting "poor babies walking slowly to the candy lady." Tracks fade in, including the album's opening choral piece, the most musical of all their often skit-like intros. They bring on a slew of guests, from Wu-Tang's Raekwon to the whole Dungeon Family without inapropos swagger-talk or distraction. Even the tactless Witchdoctor, a talent who in his own work comes across as the uninvited loud-mouth skeez at a family function, is roped in. Hitting a zenith they were bound to reach, George Clinton is featured, over the decidedly bootyshake, if technophobic in content, "Synthesizer." Wrote one critic: "Part of what made Aquemini so incredible was its avoidance of underground hip-hop's condescension; it didn't have to rely on a polarizing aesthetic... it was a loud, unpretentious, eclectic kick in the ass, and it made me, for one, love hip-hop again."
As clocks rolled over on the year 2000, causing massive technological problems in the binary sector, work wound down on Stankonia. On Halloween, with relative peace in the solar system, apathy in the political process, and the assumed presidency of Albert Gore in the zeitgeist, the duo appeared in stores in front of a chromatic American flag. Having surmounted the South, they were ready to take on the nation and its pop. Like the departing president, they'd find the latter a cinch in the wake of the former.
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