November 26, 2007

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Sometime after 50 arrived, the art of the narrative wandered into a blizzard of coke raps, artificial hood mythologizing and pandering simplicity. Complexity no longer moved units, and with sales sliding, Scarface xeroxes and ringtone rappers became the safe bets. You can’t blame the suits either. They’re just trying to save their jobs and besides, Young Jeezy went platinum, Rick Ross nearly did, and Mims, The Shop Boyz and Soulja Boy had the most popular singles of 07.

Of course, hip-hop isn’t dead, but it’s hard not to deny that over the last decade, the major label system has done an abysmal job of putting on talented young rappers. Outkast know this. Their latest song leaked from DJ Drama’s upcoming Gangsta Grillz album is called “The Art of Storytelling, Part 4″ and from the title alone, you knew it was going to be special, considering the first 2 are vital organs of Aquemini, with Volume 3, a remix aided by Slick Rick, arguably the greatest storyteller of them all. On the surface level, it’s easy autobiography, Andre kicking a stream-of-consciousness rant about groupies. Big Boi playing Outkast’s id, offering menacing backhands and boasts about the hierarchy of his harem. But that’s just the frame.

Inside the lines, Andre subtly indicts the hair-metal excess of contemporary hip-hop (how dare I throw it on the floor when people are poor”), re-affirming his outsider status in spite of the 30-plus million sold and drawing from the wellspring of self-righteous anger and terminal hunger that feeds so many great artists. The most played-out cliche in hip-hop is “the game needs [insert rapper's name here]. But if the game needs anyone, it’s Outkast. Not the bullshit neo-Prince of The Love Below, the moody, cynical brilliance of their prime. Outkast were the last of a breed. The last great weirdos allowed to sneak through the gates, before they shuttered in a sober gray clangor.

10 11 Years Gone

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“Part 4″ finds Andre searching for the moral compass that hip-hop lost sometime in the late 90s when greed no longer became good, it became necessary. Jay-Z’s rant on American Gangster was right. It’s stupid to blame hip-hop when Tila Tequila’s bi-sexual dating show, ultra-violent films, and geo-political ambition often seem like America’s chief exports. Without lapsing into strident protest, Andre points out the boring desperation of most rappers that desperately try to think of new permutations of the same tired tropes (“these ain’t these same old rhymes to have you dancing in some club”.)

Extraordinarily self-aware, Andre knows we’re listening. How can he not? This is Outkast after all, the guys responsible for the best selling hip-hop album of all time (and arguably, the best). Yet rather than pathetically bitching and moaning about Internet rumors (not to name any names), Andre has spent his comeback year decimating every beat thrown his way. If it feels like he’s taunting us it’s because he is, with his lyrics and flow rust-proof, despite frittering away a half-decade presumably taking liquid acid and watching Purple Rain on repeat.

“Da’ Art of Storytellin'” is a challenge to all-comers, a dare to the rap world to see if anyone stronger has emerged since Andre got bored with hip-hop sometime around the millennium. It’s that all-too-rare, adrenaline-racing, boombox monstrosity that whip-saws you to attention and makes you remember why you loved hip-hop so much in the first place. In an ideal rap world, this song would get at the very least as much burn on car stereos as “Soulja Girl” (notice, Andre’s bumping 100 Miles And Running). The sort of thing you’d hope would shift some teenage rapper’s paradigm from the obscene commercialism of the newest school, to the line of storytellers descended from Slick Rick and Kool G Rap, This should be required rewind listening for all aspiring rappers. Fuck being a motivational speaker, an actor, or a “brand,” rappers should want to tell stories, not be them.

Download:
MP3: Outkast-“Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 4″