Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Outkast.
To a certain set of music fans, a basement in Lakewood Heights, Atlanta, enjoys a reverence similar to Detroit’s 2648 West Grand Boulevard; Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Memphis’ Beale Street; and perhaps even 3 Abbey Road. It’s hallowed ground. Rico Wade’s basement, affectionately known as the Dungeon, was the first studio space of a music collective called the Dungeon Family and the home base of its production team, Organized Noize. And like those other locations, the Dungeon became a laboratory, a gestational space where like-minded musicians gathered to exchange ideas, form relationships, and eventually lay down tracks that would change the landscape of pop music.
In 1994 Southern hip-hop, when thought of at all, was considered to be just “booty-shake” music with too much bass, no originality, and little relevance to the national scene. The only group from Georgia making any kind of splash at the time was Arrested Development, and by ’94, they were well on their way to imploding. But on April 26, 1994, that changed with the release of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the debut album from a duo calling themselves Outkast—two East Point, Atlanta, teenagers, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “Dre” Benjamin, who were signed as LaFace Records’ first hip-hop act.
These days, listening to the very first Outkast single, “Player’s Ball,” and watching its music video (which was directed by Sean “Puffy” Combs, of all people), is a bit like looking at early photos of the Beatles, when they were brimming with a childlike, apple-cheeked eagerness. This version of Outkast is just two baby-faced teenagers, barely out of high school, making their introductions, trying hard to depict a cool they haven’t quite earned yet.
Speaking of the Fab Four, it’s become a cliché to draw a comparison to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the most successful yin-yang songwriting team in the history of pop music) when there are two equally talented but conspicuously different musical partners, yet this is an instance when such a comparison, while simplistic, is apt—and became even more so over the course of Outkast’s output—which is why the connection is made so often.
During a 10-month period that saw the seminal debuts of Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G., Outkast’s sneak attack from the South repped Atlanta at every opportunity, delivered lyrics in a pronounced Southern drawl, incorporated electric guitar and funk grooves, and encouraged youth to follow their passions while still handling their business, all without the use of a single classic-music sample, which was rap’s bread and butter at the time. The gamble worked. Southernplayalistic spawned two successful singles and earned the duo a 4.5 mics rating as well as the coveted “Best Newcomer” award from Source magazine, the hip-hop tastemaker of the time. While the album’s reception was not universally positive (rap trailblazer Russell Simmons didn’t care for it at first), it was one hell of an opening statement. And, if nothing else, this was the album that introduced what has since become something of a rally cry: “Hootie Hoo.”
By the time Outkast’s fourth album, Stankonia, was released in 2000, the duo had an established reputation as risk-takers and game-changers. With each successive project, they defied expectations and boundaries to make the music that was most interesting to them. It was a strategy that paid off exponentially, and this album was a culmination of that. From the album title—“Stankonia is the place from which all funky things come”—to the cover art positioning the duo (Big Boi in a plain white T, André 3000 shirtless in his high-waisted pants) in front of monochrome stars and stripes, it’s all a statement for what’s in store.
Monster breakout single “Ms. Jackson,” seemingly inspired by André’s breakup with Erykah Badu, became the group’s first song to top Billboard’s Hot 100. It had it all: earworm of a chorus, instrumentation mashup, storytelling lyrics. And what better way to use Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” than in a song about the death of a relationship? “So Fresh, So Clean” had a strutting groove that made it a great fit to play in the clubs, but the single that was the real innovation was “B.O.B”—an abbreviation for “Bombs Over Baghdad.” The track was a political statement, a blatant challenge for other artists to step their game up, and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production, with its frenetic tempo, wailing guitar, wordplay friendly chant, and gospel choir vamp. No one else in hip-hop sounded like this, and it sparked a remix version from none other than Rage Against The Machine. Also, André’s rapid-fire assault of an opening verse proved definitively to any of his skeptical naysayers that an MC can rock a hot-pink jumpsuit and remain unfuckwittable on the mic.
Due to the success of the released singles, several other Stankonia gems, like “Gasoline Dreams” and “Humble Mumble” featuring Erykah Badu, are often unfairly overlooked. Granted, every track on the album isn’t a winner. “Snappin’ & Trappin’” has the distinction of containing Killer Mike’s debut featured verse, and it’s a pretty crass track that strategizes methods for dealing with predatory groupies (the pullout method and oral sex, of course). Despite Killer Mike’s declaration of the track being an instant classic, it was not.
The fifth official Outkast album, 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, works as both a coronation and a curtain call for the group’s most fruitful creative period. With André 3000’s relocation to Los Angeles, new focus on launching his acting career, plans to score a film, and dramatically reduced interest in touring, he and Big Boi were at opposite ends of the spectrum when it came time to consider the next Outkast release. They eventually decided to simply produce solo albums to be released as a double LP under the Outkast name, a strategic decision that had its advantages and disadvantages. It gave each the freedom to make the music he wanted on his own timetable, but it removed a vital piece of the formula that had proved so beneficial over the course of four albums and a decade of music: an undeniable meshing of energies and styles that made Outkast greater than the sum of its halves. Gone were the tag-team verse swaps, and in their place were sprawling versions of the individual elements hinted at on Stankonia—André opting to sing instead of rap, and Big Boi offering lengthy interludes that include his kids. Yet both employ interesting instrumentals and production techniques to do something new with their work.
As usual, Big Boi took to dispelling rumors of a breakup, proclaiming that he and his partner were complementary not contradictory, but this time it seemed as if he was protesting too much. If not breaking up, the established entity known as Outkast was at least taking a break. This double album/solo effort offered two sides of the same coin, yes, but it also underlined the notion that Outkast was actually more like a supergroup. Each member was a fully realized artist in his own right, which was confirmed by the fact that LaFace decided to release two leadoff tracks during the fall of 2003 instead of one, André’s “Hey Ya!” and Big Boi’s “The Way You Move,” and these two songs topped the Billboard charts for a combined 10 weeks during the winter of 2004. “Hey Ya!” caught on so completely during the fall of 2003, it became ubiquitous to the point of parody. But its bouncy rhythms, energetically tone-deaf melody, and bright-green, heavily stylized music video—with its Ed Sullivan head-nod and spastic dancing from 3000—mask what is actually a pretty bleak view of monogamy. It wasn’t until the track became a go-to choice for acoustic covers that the despondence indicated in the song’s lyrics were fully realized.
The prevailing idea of the time was that Big Boi had made the more “Outkast” (read: safer) of the two albums, while 3000 took all the musical risks (including a meandering, percussive rendition of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”). But that summation is overly reductive and discounts the things Speakerboxxx does exceedingly well, especially with its layered instrumentation. To call The Love Below a hip-hop album would be laughable, but André 3000 seemed to have abandoned any inclinations of limiting himself in format or paying attention to labels a while back. Follow-up singles “Ghetto Musick” and “Prototype” didn’t perform nearly as impressively as the first two, but, then again, how could they? This double album had it all, and it received an orgiastic embrace from music critics upon release. It also flipped the generally accepted casting of both personalities (André as the philosopher-thinker and Big Boi as the laid-back player) on its head. With this release, Big Boi was the one dropping socially aware lyrics while 3000 explored the sexual escapades of his many alter egos. This release was simply the latest example of yet another Outkast gamble paying off handsomely. And in February of 2004, when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below received the Grammy for Album Of The Year, it was a landmark win that was considered an upset not just because of its hip-hop distinction, but also because another duo, The White Stripes, were heavily favored to take home the prize for Elephant. But it was Outkast’s year. These two outsiders, who had considered “mainstream” such a dirty word they made a song about it, were now the establishment.
As with any artist discontent to keep making the same product over and over again, considering Outkast’s discography can feel a bit like studying Zallinger’s famous March To Progress illustration. The two years between the release of Southernplayalistic and ATLiens marked a time of tremendous change and growth for the duo—Big Boi became a father and Dre became a strict vegetarian who stopped drinking and smoking and started sporting a turban. So it was understandable that when it was time to record the highly anticipated sophomore album, the duo left the hood to explore other vistas. The basic elements of street life aren’t that different from city to city: There are drugs. There’s prostitution (in its many forms). There’s violence and death and doing unsavory things for the sake of the almighty dollar. But that wasn’t really their world any more—if it ever was in the first place. They were always too devoted in their love for music to give their hearts to the pimp game. And despite the differences in their personalities and the fact that they were developing drastically divergent personal styles, these two were looking to tell new stories.
At a time when hip-hop artists were either bathing their lyrics in a vat of misogyny or being dismissed as overly preachy and self-righteous, this album showed Outkast’s willingness to straddle that line, acknowledging the prevailing mentalities around street life and the inevitable outcomes of using sex as a weapon, while also pointing out how utterly destructive both can be. And just in case things were getting too heavy, this is the album where they started consciously incorporating interludes between songs that functioned as dramatic skits often tied to the messages in the music. It was a savvy bit of sugar to help all that medicine go down.
On ATLiens, Outkast began to experiment with producing the music themselves, forming a production unit and using very strategic samples from artists of another era. If Dr. Dre’s The Chronic introduced the music of Parliament-Funkadelic to a new generation, Outkast introduced the spirit behind the P-Funk mentality to a new generation of music-makers and fans. Taking a page from the playbook of Afrofuturism forerunner/funk pioneer/perennial space cadet George Clinton, they incorporated fantasy elements into the work. But this is also when the group began what became a perpetual struggle to address and dismiss any rumors of an impending breakup. Considering André’s newfound lifestyle, his fondness for thrift-store haberdashery, and the lyrics’ more serious sensibilities, Outkast had a lot to prove with this album—both to the hometown fans who’d been with them since the beginning and to any potential newcomers. In just two years, Outkast had undergone the first of several transformations, and still managed to deliver standouts with “Elevators (Me & You),” “Jazzy Belle,” and the title track.
The group expanded their scope even further with 1998’s Aquemini. While they were always willing to give some space to their Dungeon Family/Atlanta affiliates, this marks the first time they feature collaborative experiments with artists unrelated. Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon shows up on “Skew It On The Bar-B” and one of their musical icons, George Clinton, has a hand in the ponderous “Synthesizer,” which examines humans’ relationship with technology. And it’s around this time that “Dre” began to refer to himself as “André 3000.”
Standout track “Rosa Parks” is a genre-, time-, region-skipping marvel. It’s got a drawling hook, an effective dismissal of the haters, André wearing football pads as if that’s a shirt, and a freaking harmonica solo break.
“Da Art Of Storytellin’ 2” is an all too brief two-minute vision of impending apocalypse that presages Stankonia’s “B.O.B” with its assaultive, dynamic delivery. As is the Outkast way, there are a lot of guest spots on the record, the culmination of which is “Liberation,” a nearly nine-minute collaborative opus that features soulful belting from Cee-Lo Green and Erykah Badu as well as an extended spoken-word sermon from Big Rube. Subject matter on this one track ranges from the cost of fame to racism to drug addiction to self-hatred. It’s the ultimate extended jam, clearly taking some cues from Gil Scott-Heron’s best work.
Aquemini is the album when mainstream music criticism started to take Outkast a bit more seriously. Such terms as “brilliant,” “ambitious,” “eccentric,” and “masterpiece” were bandied about unironically. Source magazine’s 5 mics rating certainly legitimized Outkast as two venerable MCs doing huge things with the craft of hip-hop and worked as a wake-up call for people who still considered hip-hop to be bicoastal. Of course, caring too much about a grade in a magazine seems like acquiescing to the general politics of the day. André 3000 and Big Boi are many things, but they aren’t politicians.
To date, there’s only been one Outkast compilation released, Big Boi & Dre Present… Outkast, and chronologically it falls between the release of Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. While the album includes slightly different versions than the album tracks, it also introduced three new songs into the Outkast repertoire: “Funkin’ Around,” “Movin’ Cool (The After Party),” and “The Whole World.” The third was released as a single and included a blistering verse from Killer Mike which announced him as a talent to watch. Five albums and more than a decade later, he’s finally seeing some well-deserved recognition in the wake of R.A.P. Music and Run The Jewels.
Big Boi and Dre had been trying to make a movie for years, and they finally got their chance after the double album’s unequivocal success. The product was 2006’s Idlewild, a period piece set in the Depression-era (fictional) eponymous Georgia town. In a smart move not to stray too far from reality, André Benjamin was cast as Percival, the introverted piano player, and Antwan Patton portrays his childhood best friend, a boisterous performer named Rooster. The choice here to be billed as actors by their birth names and not their stage names is a distinct one, as all the musical work they did on the film still bears the Outkast personas.
Veteran Outkast video director Bryan Barber was tapped to direct the effort as his first feature film, but this is still a 121-minute music video, so heavily stylized it detracts from the narrative it’s attempting. All the major plot points are telegraphed either by the direction or by the actors’ choices: Terrence Howard’s turn as the gangster whose suave exterior does nothing to mask his sadistic nature; Paula Patton as the ingenue with a secret; and Ben Vereen as the disapproving father. (Anyone who doesn’t immediately peg Patton’s “Angel” as a dead woman walking from the moment she saunters into that mortuary should check their pulse.)
The accompanying soundtrack was a curiosity also, considering the movie is packed to the brim with previous Outkast tracks. In fact, “Movin’ Cool” is used as a major plot device. But for the fact that this time the interludes are simply excerpted dialogue from the film, this movie soundtrack wasn’t much of a soundtrack at all. Other than the nod to Cab Calloway in “Mighty O,” it’s not particularly Depression era-specific. It’s simply an Outkast album, once again boasting some Big Boi-centric songs and some André songs. Big Boi’s standout track “Morris Brown” does play over the movie’s closing credits, an anachronism excused only because of the quality of the song. For André’s part, “Chronometrophobia” has a laid-back, feel-good vibe, and “Idlewild Blue (Don’t You Worry ’Bout Me) gives 3000 the chance to try his chops at the blues.
Another curious Outkast contribution is the creation of an entire lexicon, most of which was foreign to non-Southern music fans at the time. From the very beginning, this was a band that trafficked in the portmanteau, from the album titles to the song lyrics. Eventually people caught on that a “SpottieOttieDopaliscious angel” is an attractive young lady or that “M-I-crooked letter” means Mississippi, or that Stankonia is a pretty funky utopia, but it took a bit. There were no words to accurately describe Outkast, so they had to be made up. Between the invented vocabulary, local colloquialisms, neighborhood shout-outs, collection of aliases, Dungeon Family tree, and wholly original narratives, Outkast is a universe of its own.
The 46th Annual Grammy Awards should have been Outkast’s shining moment of glory. With André 3000 having sworn off touring for the moment, any performance from the duo in support of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a highly anticipated event. Add to that the fact that “Hey Ya!” had the live-performance slot reserved for the anticipated winner for Record Of The Year (an award that had gone to Coldplay’s “Clocks” just moments before André’s performance). Despite the trailblazing win for Album Of The Year, Outkast’s awards show triumph was marred by a performance of “Hey Ya!” that included a Navajo religious chant and the performers emerging from a teepee wearing Native American-esque costumes complete with feathers and fringe. Designing the set in this way was probably a stylistic yet careless choice more than an intentionally provocative one. Intentions aside, though, it reeked of stereotyping and misappropriating symbols from another ethnic group in the name of entertainment, which is simply not tolerable, and it offended many Native Americans in the process. The Native American Cultural Center got organized in its protest, lodging an official complaint with the FCC and requesting NAACP remove Outkast from consideration in that year’s Image Awards. The controversy died down within a couple of months, and neither the group nor its record label have spoken publicly on the subject since it occurred.
Any two artists who guest on as many songs as these guys do are going to produce a few duds. The most blatant of which includes the Stank Remix for No Doubt’s 2002 single “Hey Baby” featuring Outkast and Killer Mike. Considering how the California band was flying pretty high on the success of Rock Steady, the move stinks of trend-hopping and lacks any real chemistry between these artists. Individually, Big Boi’s guest feature on a remix of Bruno Mars’ “Nothin’ On You” has a similar effect. André 3000’s featured verse on a remix of Beyonce track “Party” is also pretty underwhelming. Benjamin’s production work on Gwen Stefani’s solo debut, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (which is credited to his Johnny Vulture alter ego), resulted in two of the most lackluster tracks on what was ostensibly a fun, dance/groove record. Finally, one gets the distinct feeling Big Boi only made his recent contribution to the Game Of Thrones-inspired mixtape so he’d have the opportunity to say “Dungeons, dragons, kings, and queens” and “Fuck the Lannisters!”
The world’s first glimpse of Outkast came in the form of a featured verse on the remix of “What About Your Friends,” a 1992 single from LaFace labelmate and fellow Atlantans TLC. The guys were 17 years old at the time, and André kicks off the verse by exclaiming the Southernism “Good googly-moogly!” An auspicious beginning if ever there was one.
During the periods when Outkast didn’t have a new album to promote or tour behind, they would often do one-offs for film soundtracks. Most these songs are fine, but nothing that would necessarily have a place on an Outkast album, and they haven’t really gone on to become classics. There are a few notable entries worth seeking out, though: “Phobia” from the 1995 soundtrack of John Singleton’s Higher Learning; “In Due Time” from the Soul Food soundtrack; and “I Can’t Wait” from Barbershop 2, all of which also include other Dungeon Family members (a philosophizing Big Rube doing a spoken-word intro, a crooning Cee Lo, and producer-turned-singer Sleepy Brown respectively). The third also marks the only instance where they’ve addressed the Rosa Parks lawsuit in their music.
Despite having its biggest artistic triumphs happen in the age of the bootleg CD and the proliferation of illegal file sharing, true Outkast fandom absolutely requires having the album liner notes as well as the music. From ATLiens on, the group used this as a venue to put forward additional messaging about what they were doing or to simply exhibit a more-stylized aesthetic to accompany the music. The ATLiens album art reveals a comic-book narrative starring Outkast as aliens, Organized Noize as freedom fighters, label head L.A. Reid as some sort of robot, and a narrative about fighting against censorship, where the city of Atlanta has become Atlantis. Even when the liner notes aren’t making a dramatic artistic statement, they still include curious minutia. The CD insert for Speakerboxxx featured an ad for Big Boi’s Pitfall Kennels, his family-run dog-breeding business, and The Love Below portion had an ad to order prints of André 3000’s artwork.
Although the first-generation Dungeon Family collaborated many times over the years, there has only been one attempt to make an entire album as a collective, 2001’s Even In Darkness. With so many cooks in the kitchen, the tone and execution of the album gets muddled, but both Big Boi’s and Dre’s rhymes on this release predict their individual work on Speakerboxxx/TLB. And the first 90 seconds of “Crooked Booty,” featuring Cee Lo and André, do a very effective job of articulating the entire Dungeon Family ethos.
During this extended hiatus from the band, Big Boi has released two solo albums, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty and Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors. He’s also worked with the Atlanta Ballet to create a show titled big that incorporates his music. André Benjamin has yet to release a solo album under any moniker, but has appeared as a guest artist for other people’s music consistently. In 2006, he co-created, executive-produced, wrote music for, and voiced a part in the Cartoon Network animated series Class Of 3000. And the biographical film with André as Jimi Hendrix, All Is By My Side, finally arrives this year, almost a decade after the idea first began to make the news and without any actual Hendrix music.
What’s next for “the coolest motherfunkers on the planet” is really anyone’s guess. Big Boi will probably continue to release consistently decent, linguistically aerobic hip-hop albums and produce new artists. Provided he sticks with an interest long enough, an André record could do some groundbreaking on new musical planes as well. If Benjamin had been less fame-averse and had a bit less of a penchant for singing off-key, he probably could have fashioned a career for himself that mirrored his DF cohort Cee Lo Green, transitioning from Southern MC to all-around pop maestro. Then again, that sort of thing would probably have bored him. He’s more interested in following his muse and his interests around, wherever they may lead—be it into the rap game, back out again, into a period piece as a piano crooner, into the movies, into kids’ cartoons, shilling for Gillette razors, whatever.
Twenty years later, Outkast has transformed from two newcomers with something to prove to elder statesman tasked with pulling up the next generation of Dungeon Family rule-breakers. They’ve gone from being those selective sample hunters to being the ones sampled. They’re not (just) “two dope boyz in a Cadillac” any more. They’ve grown up. They’ve evolved. They are two artists who have proven they can create without the other and without the weight of the Outkast banner. All of which casts the recent festival reunion tour in a certain light, not necessarily a cynical return to an old pair of shoes that don’t fit any more, but a celebration of the magic they conceived together. Big Rube couldn’t have put it better in his Southernplaylistic monologue “True Dat”: “[They] are forever outcasts. As a matter of fact, fuck being anything else.”
One of André 3000’s chief complaints in the wake of massive success has been that too many fans think Stankonia is Outkast’s first album, but there’s a reason that misconception persisted. The delicate chemistry of Outkast mixed every ingredient—hooky melodies, experimentation, humorous asides, diversity of influences—just right on this one. Mainstream crossover success achieved.
André and Big Boi went full-bore experimental here, and this is the album when kids in the suburbs started to become as crucial a part of Outkast’s audience as hardcore hip-hop heads. It’s also the first album where they unabashedly admit to lacing their “Chonkyfire” with rock ’n’ roll.
3. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Despite a few background appearances, this double album was a separate effort. Without the other in the role as editor, both artists indulged their every whim and it shows. Having sold more than 11 million copies, it may be the most successful release of the new millennium to so clearly reject the limiting notion of genre.
The duo’s second album was a marked departure from the “talk what you know” strategy grounding Outkast’s debut. Gone were the scrappy underdogs intent on putting Atlanta on the map as a musical force. In their place stood two seekers looking for their next adventure.
5. Outkast: The Videos
If ever a hip-hop group was begging for an official music-video anthology release, this one does. Despite the glaring omission of “Rosa Parks,” “Jazzy Belle (Remix),” “Prototype,” “Roses,” and “Ghetto Musick,” this video collection was released in 2003 and nevertheless offers a fascinating and concise peek at the band’s evolution in their output and aesthetic.