Formed in 1992 by rival rappers at a suburban Atlanta high school, OutKast — the greatest hip-hop group since Public Enemy — accomplished a great many things in its first decade. OutKast are not merely rap’s best chance for permanent favor with rock fans; they are, on any given day, possibly America’s best band. Unafraid to mine their Georgian vibes nor plunder rap’s brief past, OutKast delight the brain and animate the ass. Filtering current sounds through the laid-back crooning of ’70s and ’80s funk, Andre Benjamin (Dre, then Andre 3000) and Antwan Patton (Big Boi) favor music that swings, snaps and sasses. Matching artistic innovation with successful merchandising like no other music collective since Prince’s, OutKast have taken seriously their role as spokesmen for the disenfranchised, the silenced, the alienated, the Southern, the cast-out. Play their albums in sequential order and hear the reality of being young, gifted, and black.
Mature, mellow and celebratory, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik blueprints the duo’s musical and thematic direction. Big Boi rocks heavy on the challenging beats and notes borrowed from a wide range of influences: Wu-Tang’s bass-heavy throb, Stax horns, deep country soul, the backdoor preachin’ of Clarence Carter and O.V. Wright. While Big Boi satisfies himself with typical gangsta posing and getting some on the weekend, Dre is already a great singer. He croons, pleads and begs. This dichotomous interplay between rapping and singing, misogyny and self-determination, replaces organic lyrical certitude for valuable musical diversity. Perfectly produced by Organized Noize and establishing the quirky instrumentation and helter skelter rhythmic patterns that would launch fellow Atlantans like Goodie Mob and Society of Soul, the album is a feel-good stunner: sweeping, soulful and hospitable.
ATLiens is more of the same, set against an ingenious fantasy borrowed from B-movie horror film effects. The operatic narrative never holds, but the music is rarely dull. The disc is fresh and funny, with P-Funk ballsiness and self-defining lyrics that praise ordinary folks, steady love and artistic creation over guns, gangstas and bitches. “Millennium” and “Elevators” are hot bursts of anti-testosterone spirituality. For most groups, a sprawling musical aesthetic and a thematically unfocused album would spell trouble. For OutKast, this superb album suggested greatness to come.
Aquemini starts slowly, with angelic voices, but the preaching soon kicks in, a talk that hectors, compromises, denounces and teases. A happy anomaly in the industry, OutKast is artistically daring and iconoclastic about rap’s ideals, no matter how deeply fond of the genre itself. With allusions from everywhere, and a dramatis personae of idiots and saints, preachers and con men, and, yes, whores with hearts of gold, what prevents the album from sliding into swampy cliché are the propulsive beats and the interplay of the two voices, here better than elsewhere, merged, as if committed to a vision unified. Combining Nas’s street realism with A Tribe Called Quest’s idealized messages of a body politic of self-determining African-Americans, Aquemini stretches the recording limits: mostly produced by the duo and using live instruments, the album captures the pair discussing artistic direction and changing the rules. The title blends the words Aquarian and Gemini, the pair’s astrological signatures, and for the last time the two sound confident, optimistic and brotherly.
Two years later, a moodier and more confrontational OutKast released their masterpiece of a downstroke. Stankonia is an album of such startling invention that its individual pieces of greatness can be obscured. “Gasoline Dreams,” “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.” are among the strongest songs of the decade. Powerful and brutal, violent and poetic, these songs reflect OutKast’s shattering of innocuous hackneyed characters and gainful possibilities. The music turns inward as exiles seek their homeland, with the commensurate valleys and peaks of despair and hopefulness, perplexities and enlightenment made alive. It’s like eavesdropping on a neighborhood block party: there are many more borrowed voices here, as well as a tighter sense of mutual social sentiment. The vibe is raw, as instruments are plucked and strummed, as voices carelessly linger on images of the past. The women are voluptuous, needy and scarred; the men transcribe their dreamy desires. Big Boi and Dre seem to be operating on different wavelengths here, with the former an anti-ideological folk singer for the forlorn, and the latter a dreamy innocent, a marginalized victim and stoic member of a collapsing world.
And so the dream of OutKast ends and begins on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a number-one selling album in the universe and a monumentally rewarding and exhausting double album of greatness and failure. Fundamentally a solo project, Speakerboxxx is imaginative Bog Boi’s claim as the best rapper alive. It bounces, it bangs. His naïve personal creed, love for mythical Atlanta and P-Funk freedom from form mark it as the better effort here. Free of persistent authorial intrusion and in love with cock-and-bull storytelling (as ridiculous as the stories may be), Big Boi is an audacious auteur. The disc is mercilessly rhythmic, emotional and suggests a night out spent carousing, just before last call when doubt sinks in.
The Love Below is marked by amorous confidence, along with musical variety and lyrical vamping that stretches from Yiddish folk songs, Noël Coward-like parodies, porn soundtracks, Beat poetry and Al Green. This isn’t merely an album, it’s an aural movie, and the star is as egocentric, dirty and funny as his ultimate model, Prince. Whereas Speakerboxxx celebrates community, The Love Below comically inverts it: there is no compromise here, no unified speaker, no identifiable hero. The fragments are fascinating, but the moments are squashed by linking chorus interludes, by the novelistic hugeness of the enterprise. And the philosophy is a step backward: Love, Lying and Getting Laid are suitable dramas, but here they are shallow and phallocentric. “Roses” is supreme Cameo-styled funk, “Vibrate” is groovy and funny, and “Prototype” is almost beautiful in a “Dear Prudence” type of way. The singing is outstanding, but nowhere greater than on “Hey Ya!,” four minutes of transcendental and dreamlike exertion. Boisterous and tense, free and dexterous, “Hey Ya!” is a high point of American dance music.
Big Boi and Dre Present…OutKast is a useful greatest hits, although it predates Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and adds only three disposable new songs to the catalogue.