Outkast - The Fantastic Five
When I was ten years old “Just Dance 2” dropped for the Wii and my god, it changed lives. It mostly changed my life because instead of putting blood sweat and tears into Mario Kart, I had to be constantly reminded that I in fact shared the Wii with my family, and had to endure watching them stumble about to Just Dance 2 like a bunch of alcoholic apes. There are only 2 songs I can remember on that game, the first being something along the lines of Ra Ra Rasputin (he sounded like an awful bloke), and the other was “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. I liked that song a lot and spent my precious 99p to download it onto my iPod touch right next to Doodle Jump and Angry Birds, which weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
As I joined school and began listening to my own music and the music that was bluetoothed to my Nokia, I began to find more and more music that I liked myself in a typical fashion. Two seminal songs that every 11 year old had were Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and “Till I Collapse” which allowed any angsty 11 year old to really “feel” on the bus back from his school to his leafy village where dinner was definitely waiting for them. Over the years I became a huge Eminem fan and there was one infamous line in the song “Till I Collapse” that just baffled me every time. The line is of course where he ranks his list of favourite rappers, in which to my amusement “Andre from OutKast” came in 6th, hot on the heels of Biggie and Pac, and ahead of Nas. Nas! I was listening to enough hip hop at the age to understand that that was a big deal, and my only point of reference was this song on my iPod “Hey Ya!”. I actually googled the lyrics to make sure it wasn’t some sort of joke, something Eminem was famous for, and when I found that it was in fact a legitimate claim, I did very little to explore for myself and just basked in my ignorance. Eventually “Ms. Jackson” found its way to me and I could begin to see the appeal, but again it was just a rap pop song in my mind that every joe on the street knew, and yet Andre was consistently in a list of rappers that are the crème de la crème, the top ten best to ever do it. He was always there on the lists that I used to pour over of “the best rappers to ever live” and I just did not understand what was going on. I had written OutKast off as a pop rap crossover with a polished sound ready made for Radio 1 as that was all that I had heard. It wasn’t until literally just over a year ago that I committed myself to getting to the bottom of the monumental hype OutKast got. It was when I was listening to a podcast when the best discographies in hip hop was put to the host, and they all unanimously and without hesitation said OutKast, and then proceeded to remould the question to fit a universe where OutKast wasn’t an option. It commanded my full attention and so it was given.
The word “classic”, especially in terms of hip hop, is thrown around with the frequency of a ball, and its unbelievably infuriating. Drake has just released a thrown together project of loosies and B sides to tide people over until his next album hits in summer, and yet go to “Album of the Year” and you will see Drake fans heralding this new release a classic 15 minutes after it has dropped. This is excluding the obligatory Instagram comment sections under artists releases with the flames emoji popping up more than a burning building, and “instant classic” being slung by everyone who perhaps enjoyed the project on first listen. Most people would see that as farcical, but it has to be that the word “classic” has at least some level of objectivity to it. There are albums out there that are beloved by everyone, and are flawless from top to bottom, but that doesn’t necessarily warrant the coveted “classic” tag. In my opinion a classic has to mark a moment or shift in musical history, have a tangible influence on releases that follow it, or be the first of its kind. After a year of deliberation and listening to OutKast, to me and to most, they have five. Most artists occupying any genre dream of maybe one day having one classic album, so how can it be that OutKast have produced not only 5 classics, but 5 albums that all sound completely different, solidifying them as one of the best musical acts to ever do it. This is the journey through these five seminal albums.
The debut album by OutKast is always overlooked and forgotten by the casual listener, and its understandable as to why. This was the least “OutKast” album they ever produced, as they hadn’t quite found their reinventive formula, and Andre at least doesn’t sound as though he has found his conscious niche yet. However, that doesn’t negate the astonishing quality and significance of this album. This album deliberately falls a little more in line with the sounds of hip hop in 1994, and this was an excellent move, as every musical genius needs publicity. They sailed in on this accessible and brilliant ship, captivated an audience, then took them on a wild journey. But they needed an audience, and so they headed to the dungeon family production team in a basement in Atlanta and produced a masterpiece in southern Hip Hop. The music on hear is relentlessly funky, throwing nods to Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” whilst southern frying the bangers that this album produced. I will admit when I came to listen to OutKast, I jumped this album and headed to Aquemini and ATliens for the signature dosage of the duo, but when I came back to this I never left. My expectations were founded on what I had heard about this album, that it was a slightly trendier release for the group, and was a straightforward southern hip hop album. But that’s the brilliance of this album, they didn’t tip toe into the genre and put out a good album that nestled itself nicely into the trends of mid 90’s hip hop, they came and they conquered the genre, bringing new sounds with them. The luscious sun-soaked production on this album is masterful. All the songs serve a purpose to throw you further into the hot funk and laid-back swagger of this album, with the centre piece anti Christmas single “Player’s Ball” encapsulating everything southern hip hop would become. OutKast’s image on this album were young, weed smoking pimps who could spit bars at you until you went numb in the ear over beats that take the best from the Chronic and Funkadelic. The album ended up being steeped in controversy as it put an unwelcome wedge between the Shakespearean and violent East Coast West Coast feud, winning at the 1995 source awards in New York. The tension in the room has never been rivalled at an awards show ever, and then these two unknown rappers from the dirty south win the best new album award, and so the Hip Hop industry boo-ed OutKast off the stage, with Andre 3000 leaving with his infamous “The south got something to say” line. If anyone, ANYONE in that building new just how true that line would end up being, they would have come on stage and bowed. This album is irrefutably a classic as it’s the Blueprint for southern Hip Hop along with UGK and Goodie Mob. Big K.R.I.T, TI and every artist out of the south built their careers on the success of this album. They only needed to give you one southern banger, and you can spend your whole life trying to emulate it, but they are going to go somewhere else now. Into the stratosphere.
Nobody. I mean NOBODY could have guessed ATLiens would sound how it did. OutKast built their foundation for a nice country barn with Southerplaya, then left it and built a skyscraper right next to it. This album couldn’t sound more different to their debut if it tried, and its an absolute masterpiece, trumping its predecessor in every way. After being boo-ed at The Source awards in 1995, the industry had set a flame underneath OutKast in an unprecedented manner. They scrapped their entire sound and produced one of the most potent, minimal, and genius hip hop albums ever. This was the second OutKast album I ever listened to and I didn’t really know what to think. The thing that is difficult about listening to OutKast is that they reinvent themselves with every record. You can find the album that you love and bask in it for a while, then you come to the next and you start at the bottom rung of the ladder again, unsure of the sounds and flows coming through your headphones, and anxious about where every track is going to take you next. Its part of their genius. This album to me is dominated by minimalism, but its minimalism done correctly. Minimalism with just enough flare and beauty that it demands attention and will never slump to the back of your mind as long as its playing. The album art for starters clearly indicates that this is a massive shift from the stoner Pimps you loved so dearly on the first album. It takes a minute to digest what is happening, the cartoon illustrations, the aliens, the claws. Its insane, and it got me anxious as to what I was going to get from this project. I don’t tend to like silliness in music in massive quantities, and that’s not what I got. The first full length track is a quintessential OutKast song and perfectly embodies the sound of this album. The electronic alien voice greets you with “Greetings, earthling” and then the song hits you. The dusty East Coast drums swaggering along as a beautiful piano riff tinkers along the top of it, only met occasionally by some record scratches and far away horns. That’s it. That’s the beat, and its perfect. Before you can digest the transformation from sun soaked to cold extra-terrestrial, Big Boi is floating over the top of the instrumental, then followed by Andre 3000 in a rare form that he never ever departs from, finding creative ways to break down his lyrical opponents. Its so calm and collected, the confidence is overtly implicit, and they are winning. Black Thought of “The Roots” (one of the only hip hop acts to maybe rival Outkast’s discography) started a series breaking down the most quintessential and important Hip Hop songs to ever grace ears, and one of the lead singles from ATLiens “Elevators (Me & You)” makes him and ?uestlove’s pick, and its easy to see why. The beat is the definition of eery. It’s a skeletal instrumental with the occasional guitar lick flying past your ear like a UFO amongst the coin collect noise from Super Mario Bro’s. Andre and Big Boi deliver some of the finest verses of their career detailing the process of writer’s block and the struggle of thinking up a follow up album. The infectious hook “Me and You….” will forever remain in your ear. This wasn’t a track that immediately stood out to me on this album, but again that’s the beauty of OutKast. Almost every album I listened to I had my immediate favourites that I would sit with for a while, then I would come back and digest those that demanded a little more attention, and the pay off was always there. Its in the essence of their timelessness, even if the song isn’t grabbing you right there and then, you can feel your in the minds of greatness, and it will find you eventually. The whole album is seminal, and the poignant closer “13th Floor / Growing Old” is lead by a warm and gorgeous piano solo, and as the beat drops and the record scratches come in and collide with the piano, Andre and Big Boi cement themselves as some of the best to ever do it. If that wasn’t enough, OutKast began to produce in this period, and produced many of the songs that appear on here. They were keen to be more involved as they went on, and we are all thankful they did.
This was the album I was drawn to first. I say drawn to, but really I mean catapulted towards by everyone that had an opinion on hip hop. This album is probably their most beloved and celebrated album, if its possible for that to exist. If you ignore Idlewild (I am for this article), if you asked 5 OutKast fans what their favourite album is you would probably get 5 different answers, and I can see why. If you pushed it though, this album would probably be considered their magnus opus. I think that’s because it falls in the middle of their career, and as a result it’s a melting pot of every element of what makes OutKast OutKast. No other album in their discography has the range that this one does, or displays every quality that makes each OutKast album, and it does this without sacrificing it’s cohesion. The hype for this album was immense, as the most trusted hip hop outlet at the time “The Source” gave it a 5 mic’s rating before it came out, a rating shared by the likes of “Illmatic”, were OutKast really going to out do the work they had already laid? Yes. In many ways they were. This album is just too vastly impressive, and bewilderingly iconic to ignore. The heavy hitting opener “Return of the ‘G’” smashes through your speakers as tongue twister Andre 3000 delivers a stellar verse addressing and mocking the rumours that swirled around his eccentric imagery: debunking the claims of homosexuality and even the involvement in a cult with a cool “I’m feeling better than ever”. You have the intensely strange but smooth single “Rosa Parks” which feels more like a barn dance than a hip-hop song, as the harmonica and acoustic guitar take front stage. But again, OutKast didn’t just make it work, they made it a goddamn hit single, and all this without sacrificing lyrical potency, with Big Boi stealing the first verse. The mere inclusion of the legendary Wu Tang’s very own Raekwon on the intense “Skew it on the Bar-B” gave OutKast another level of validation. The city that had once boo-ed them, now welcomed them with open arms as they rapped alongside one it’s biggest godfathers, Raekwon The Chef. Everything about this album was grandiose, and none of it fell flat on its face. The title track is maybe my favourite OutKast song ever, embracing the minimalism of “ATLiens” with a domineering bassline and jazz guitar licks, and horns as the legendary encore sees out the track with some rapping that will make your jaw hit the floor. After that they give you two throwbacks to the south with “Slump” and “West Savannah”, two heavenly upbeat tracks. The production on this album alone is an achievement. With OutKast taking a further hold from Organized Noise, the album gives two iconic instrumentals. The first being the powerful “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt.1)” which has been covered by every rapper out, and then the experimental groove of “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” which is just an excess of jazz, funk, groove and hip hop colliding together in a cauldron of dungeon family brilliance. That Horn section is as iconic as anything that was released in the 1990’s by itself. This song along with “Liberation” demonstrate OutKast’s desire to push the bounds of Hip Hop and experiment. Both of the songs exceed 7 minutes and there is little hip hop to be found there other than the spoken word verses Big Boi adopts as Andre ventures off into R&B, and at first I found them to be frustrating, but the vision sets in and they are presented in all their glory.
Now its impossible to speak on OutKast in depth without confronting the elephant in the room: Andre 3000. I myself started off this piece talking on the reputation he left behind, and the acclaim which he couldn’t bat away if he tried. It almost made me wonder “wasn’t OutKast a duo?” Yes it was, and I hate that certain people and critics fail to see it that way. The reason I’m bringing it up now and not earlier on, was this is the album where many people see Andre 3000 taking off and leaving Big Boi in his midst. And I think that’s a crime. I have no problem with the acclaim and fandom that Andre 3000 gets, I think its deserved, but it’s the lack of recognition his right hand man Big Boi gets that is truly sad. Andre may be in my top ten rappers of all time, and I am ok with that, but in my view if Andre is in the top ten, the Big Boi needs to be close by. In my opinion there are a number of factors that resulted in Andre taking off the way he did, and not many of them include actually being a better technical rapper than his friend. One I think is undeniable and widely recognised was Andre’s persona. In a world where baggy jeans and timberlands dominated the fashion scene, Andre stuck out like a glorious mushroom, with no one being able to predict what he would don next. It was berets, furs, leather pants, turbans galore and in that respect, he stood out as more of a “star” then Big Boi did and for me that’s vital in understanding his success in the general public’s eye. The next point for me is far more crucial in understanding why rap fans and critics hail him as the GOAT, and not Big Boi: subject matter. Especially on Aquemini, Andre 3000 dedicated himself to crafting verses that took a more socially conscious view that perfectly bounced off Big Boi’s more traditional hip hop topic matters. The song “Da Art of Storytellin’” is a perfect example. Andre isn’t rapping worlds better than Big Boi, but his verse is more memorable as in the story he details his relationship with an abused and vulnerable girl, where as Big Boi is rapping from the perspective of someone just trying to score in a car park. Andre felt a responsibility to use his platform to dissect many areas of his brain and his world that he didn’t understand, whereas Big Boi was more interested in being the best rapper he can be and that’s the perfect combination. Big Boi is a phenomenal rapper, and yes, he outraps Andre on numerous songs, so that is that. Don’t forget about Big Boi.
Aquemini is Outkast bliss, bridging the gap between ATLiens and what would come next, and although I can’t pick a favourtie, this is the most essential Outkast album.
This is the OutKast album I find not only most difficult to write about, but also comprehend. Its difficulty is its genius in many ways, and this the album that tends to swing up and down the ranks the most in people’s estimations. This album was just the epitome of surprise. I went into this album hoping for an album of Ms. Jackson’s, an excellent hip hop song that didn’t cater to radio, but had radio cater to it, and what I got was so spellbindingly odd I just didn’t know what to do with it. I will happily admit I didn’t like this album when I first listened to it, I was skipping around all over the place and it didn’t seem to have any OutKast charm to that allowed me to hold the first three in such high regard. Forcing myself to sit with and occasionally revisit this album is the best thing I did, because the payoff was massive. For some people, they adore this album on first listen, but for me, I needed it in instalments. The year 2000 was a great one for Hip Hop. The Puffy era of the late nineties was beginning to fade and in it’s place came the late J Dilla, with a production style so human and so soulful it captivated the entire genre, and everyone who knew anything about hip hop wanted to work with him. Through him and ?uestlove the Soulquarians were born, and 2000 saw the release of Common’s irrefutably funky and successful “Like Water For Chocolate”, D’angelo’s smash hit R&B album “Voodo” and Slum Village’s debut “Fantastic, Vol.2”. The start of the millennium saw hip hop in a crucial period of progression and ambition, I mean even Ghostface switched up his production and produced his magnus opus “Supreme Clientele” that year. All eyes were on OutKast to see if they could match the greatness that was being produced by their peers, and then they dropped Stankonia. And no one saw the funk infused hysteria of this album coming. The irony is it birthed one of their biggest hit singles “Ms. Jackson”, and I find it hard to believe that the average listener that bought the album on the premise of that groovy single wasn’t absolutely shocked to hear that the rest of the album was pretty void of conventionality, and accessibility. I found the first track “Gasoline Dreams” perfectly encapsulated the feel of the album. OutKast had taken yet another left turn, and I was hearing a pounding electric guitar, a drum that sounded like it was running out of breath and Andre 3000 screaming “Don’t everybody like the smell of Gasoline”. It was almost frightening, and certainly jarring. Gone was the smoothness of their first three releases, this was a raging bull covered in rock inspired production and I just didn’t connect with it. “So Fresh So Clean” was the only song on the entire album that had a sense of linear to it, with a funky futuristic sound to it. I Loved Spaghetti Junction, a criminally underrated song by the duo, but that was it. It wasn’t until later that the intensity of “Snappin & Trappin” registered with me, or the ridiculousness of the groovy “Ill Call B4 I Cum” began to nestle into my ears, and the ambition of “B.O.B” struck to me in an astonishing way. This was OutKast showing the world that they can never ever be boxed in, and if you try, we will present you with a futuristic, bombastic whirlwind of an album that sounds like nothing you have heard before, and will hear again. Still to this day, it’s almost a joy to put on this album just for it’s unique element, its eccentricities that make you wonder how the hell anyone could hear that instrumental and possibly rap over it, whilst sounding, cool? I hesitate to mention that this is my least favourite OutKast album (at the moment), because it instantly invites a negative connotation. This is by no means a bad album, it’s a great album and a classic one at that, it’s just the lesser of 5 greats for me. But in a way I don’t think OutKast engineered this album to be your favourite. The word favourite and the rankings that go along with it are too conventional to hold a project like this. This album is meant to just be impressive. And it is absolutely that. It has monster singles on it that are up there with some of the best work they ever did, and it has an eclectic selection of experimental hip hop tracks that could only ever land in the world of Stankonia. Stankonia is a world, one that you are instantly transported to when this comes on, and as soon as any of the songs come on wherever you are, this is the only project where this is no deliberation. You know exactly what album the songscomes from, because it’s hard to forget.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Finally, we arrive at the monumental double album, the album heralded by many as Hip Hop’s “The White Album”. Whilst I don’t agree entirely with that statement, it isn’t without its merits. This is the album which brings me back to “Hey Ya!” which I was still so confused about and is the best selling hip hop album (or at least was) of all time. This thing went 11 times platinum selling just under 12 million copies worldwide. Those numbers are intimidating. So why did I ignore and dismiss this album until about three months ago? It’s because of that slash between “Speakerboxxx” and “The Love Below”. The creative rift between these two musical juggernauts had grown so strong by 2003 that instead of break up and fill tabloids and gossip columns for the duration of the year, they decided to make two separate albums, combine them as a double, and see what would happen. What happened was they practically broke the music industry with a behemoth of an album which clocked in at a mighty 2 hours and 15 minutes spanning across a dizzying 40 tracks. 20 for Andre, 20 for Big Boi. I couldn’t bring myself to recognise this album let alone listen to it because of the separation. How can it be an OutKast album if they aren’t actually working together or even occupying the same space?! I picture it being void of any chemistry and OutKast – isms and just sort of dismissed it for the longest time. After living with the other four, I sat down to dip my toe into the goliath of this album and put on the Speakerboxxx side of the album. And I was beginning to like it for the first track, that was added to the library. Then the second was the same, and the third and the forth etc. It was brilliant. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx was the biggest surprise in the OutKast universe, and he just sounds so joyful to be showing the world that he doesn’t rest on his laurels, and that he can not only survive, but thrive without his eccentric partner. Big Boi’s flows, production choices and bars all over this thing are just incredible. It’s a perfect southern rap album with fun and rich production and some great features from Killer Mike and Black Album era Jay Z. Unfortunately, this is where my patience with the music snob internet blogger runs thin. No one pans this side of the album at all, but the words you will see most frequently adjoined to this body of work are “straightforward” and “solid”. Its short-sighted. The production on tracks like “The Rooster” and “Flip Flop Rock” and “Bowtie” is far from straightforward. The acoustic guitar and horn driven sexy groove of “Bowtie” as Big Boi effortlessly rides the track is lost on so many. The urgency of “Knowing” and the political message in “War” are deemed “straightforward”, and its because of the direction Andre went in “The Love Below”. On paper this album seems like it would put to bed the question of who is better as an MC, a direct match up between the two. But it doesn’t play out like that as Andre brings an almost complete departure from hip hop to pursue a Prince orientated sound in the world of R&B. It’s impossible not to acknowledge the immensity of “Hey Ya!” and what it did for Andre and his image, and that meant that the ambition of “The Love Below” for many instantly trumped the consistent brilliance of “Speakerboxxx”, which is a crying shame. But so far, Speakerboxxx has won me over, and it was time for “The Love Below”.
I’m a big Prince fan and it was striking to see how derivative this album was Prince, especially “Sign O’ The Times” in my opinion, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “The Love Below” wears its influence proudly on its sleeve, and instead of felling like a rip off, it feels like a torch passing, a fan respecting the art that was laid down by his predecessor and attempting to resuscitate it with his own twist. I was pleasantly surprised by it. Sure, there were certain instrumentals where I was begging for the old Andre to resurface and bless us with a verse, but it wasn’t overbearing or obstructive to my enjoyment of the album. Andre made a relatively smooth and deeply impressive transition to vocal performances and singing, and as soon as he did he made one of the biggest songs of the 21st century, hardly a mean feat. I do think it slightly lacks the consistency of Speakerboxxx, but “She Lives In My Lap”, “Prototype”, “Roses” and “Happy Valentines Day” are excellent songs that see Andre excelling in his new sound. “Roses” is obnoxious and hard not to love as Andre invites Big Boi into his world of distain and they reunite, proving not only that their chemistry was timeless, but that they still had it as it proves to be a classic track by the duo. I slightly resent “The Love Below”, but it’s not Andre’s fault. His change of lane, superstardom, and “Hey Ya!” all combined to overshadow Speakerboxxx and the brilliant cohesion of that album, but that’s not to negate the great work Andre put it. The most impressive element of this mammoth record is that it feels cohesive and felt like OutKast. They separated, but their influences, production and presence brought them back together in a funny and cathartic sort of way. And you cannot deny 11 times platinum, you just can’t.
OutKast did have another album that was the soundtrack to their film “Idlewild”, but to bring it back to The Beatle’s analogy, that was there “Let It Be”. It’s not a bad album, but its just not an OutKast album. There is little chemistry there, little cohesion and it just gets swamped under the weight of their discography, and most consider Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to be their last hurrah. OutKast are consistently classic as they have a discography of firsts, and the progression is just so tangible. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik laid the foundation for southern hip hop and can be felt in every Big K.R.I.T project out there, ATLiens sounded like none of the heavyweight albums that came out in 1996, Aquemini cemented them as leaders of the genre, Stankonia managed to sound like nothing in this world and still commercially outsell its competition, and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is arguably one of the most creative double albums ever, and is the best selling hip hop album of all time. OutKast are truly musical pioneers.
Now when I hear Eminem’s verse on Till’ I Collapse I can rest easy, I just wish he would remove the “Andre from”.