20/20 Vision: Outkast — Stankonia

20/20 Vision returns as Son Raw thoroughly revisits one of rap's all-time great albums.
By    September 1, 2020

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With their 5-Mic reviewed, double-platinum classic Aquemini in the rearview mirror, Outkast were in a rarefied space not just for Hip Hop, but for any act on a major label in the late 90’s. While Arrested Development had proven southern hip-hop acts could move units, and Outkast’s peers A Tribe Called Quest had explored a rich vein of rap balancing bohemian accessibility to street credibility, the Atlanta duo’s hairpin turns and evolutionary leaps across three albums and six years had few parallels. Radiohead had similarly grown from genre outliers to scene leaders to transformative voices of a generation, but that model had already been tested for rock. Only De La Soul may have been Outkast’s sole analogue in rap, having grown from teenage prodigies to world-weary artists — much as Andre and Big Boi had evolved from proto D-boys to poetic champions of the South’s hip-hop’s potential.

But these groups’ paths would diverge on album #4: where Radiohead ran away from rock orthodoxy and De La Soul used Stakes Is High to transition fully into an adulthood that was a poor fit for pop success, Outkast’s Stankonia would turn out to be their most beloved album yet, their most exploratory, but also their most rooted in their home base of Atlanta.

This was no easy feat.  Outkast had already covered a tremendous amount of stylistic ground in an era where rap acts were barely expected to grow and evolve, let alone reinvent themselves. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik pulled off a high wire balancing act of being musical enough for G-Funk fans, lyrical enough for hip-hop purists, and authentically Southern enough to sit comfortably in the mix next to music by peers like 8Ball & MJG or UGK. ATLiens had disrupted that balance by plunging Outkast’s sound into subterranean darkness, a “difficult” second album about growing up and finding yourself that somehow managed to sell even more copies than their debut.

It was Aquemini, however, that truly set the stage for Outkast as a pop force: with brighter, more musical production ranging from boom bap to dub, lyrics that bounced from profundity to celebration, and a vibe that combined the group’s funk jams and deep thoughts. It marked Outkast not just as eccentrics within hip-hop, but as an act able to take the genre to new places without losing a mass audience. That it dropped on the same day as A Tribe Called Quest’s (then) last album was icing on the cake. Give or take a Lauryn Hill, no one in rap was pushing rap’s limits further without limiting themselves to insiders raised on Stretch & Bob or The Good Life.

In short, the group had earned the credibility and good will to take their fourth album to whatever far flung extremes they could dream of, and they’d respond with an Afro0futurist pop-rap album celebrating Atlanta as a growing center of Black art. They’d also continue to grow apart and diverge in their interests, setting the stage for Outkast’s dissolution two releases later.

It’s impossible to write about Stankonia without reckoning with the album’s – and all of Hip Hop’s – massive artistic debt to Parliament-Funkadelic. Along with James Brown and the litany of rare grooves hoarded by New York DJs, George Clinton’s musical empire had proven to be the primordial DNA from which Hip-Hop sprung. Sampled a near uncountable amount of times by acts across the hip-hop spectrum and beyond, P-Funk had proven an incredibly malleable form adaptable to any mood or format. In New York their raw drums and psychedelic humor soundtracked B-boys like EPMD, revolutionaries like X-Clan and weirdos like Redman and De La Soul.

In Los Angeles, Dr. Dre and DJ Quik slowed their pneumatic late-70’s grooves to a crawl and polished them to a menacing sheen. White alternative acts like The Chili Peppers paid homage, but so did House and Techno producers like Moodymann in Detroit — the group’s home base for the P-Funk empire’s most productive years. Outkast, however, would seek to do all of these approaches (and even the band itself), one better: Stankonia would condense funk’s entire history into one project, synthesizing it and sticking the whole thing in a blender on purée. Rap had already raided George Clinton for his loops, now Outkast were coming to update his philosophy.

From the intro on, listeners are launched ears first into a Clintonian acid trip, equal parts science fiction and pornography, but for most rap fans circa 2000, the real shock came a minute later with the squall of “Gasoline Dream’s” electric guitar. Picking up where Aquemini’s album-ending “Chonkyfire” left off, only with the volume turned up to 11, “Gasoline Dreams” was ‘Kast cashing in on that industry good will, in open defiance of what millennial Southern rap was “supposed” to sound like. A decade removed from Public Enemy’s peak and with political rap at a pre-9/11 low ebb, “Gasoline Dreams” was an angry middle finger at an America basking in the end of history, careening from Andre’s abstract worries about his children’s future to Big Boi’s hyper-specific complaints about his cousin’s incarceration on a first offense drug bust to Khujo Goodie’s apocalyptic visions of an impossible return to Africa.

At times, it barely felt like hip-hop at all. Andre’s delivery wasn’t quite sung but neither was it confined to rap’s usual meter, sounding like a distant cousin of Sly Stone or Jimi Hendrix’s wail. Though no one knew it at the time, the cadences, wild fashion sense, and disregard for Hip Hop’s rule book would eventually define acts like Future (then a Dungeon Fam understudy) and Young Thug. No emcee, not even Redman at his druggiest, had dared to tackle P-Funk’s rock phase so explicitly, and that was just track two.

Anyone expecting Outkast’s rap-rock album — this was after all the era of Limp Bizkit — was left disappointed by “So Fresh, So Clean.” Pivoting from acid rock towards funk at its cleanest and most mechanistic, the track, on its surface, was a return to the group’s southernplayalistic roots, updated for a millennial year obsessed with the potential of the future. Both on hook duties and throughout his verse, Big Boi thrives in his player persona; but in an early sign of the group’s diverging interests, Andre continues to move away from rap’s cadences and attitudes, romancing a potential conquest with androgynous come-ons and a bridge straight out of the Little Richard playbook. It says a lot about the state of hip-hop discourse that when Stankonia dropped, that this was read as “Andre being weird” rather than any potential sign of queerness in rap music.

Though in all fairness, today’s armchair analysts would likely overcompensate in their readings and ignore just how much fun Andre was having in self expression.

This preoccupation with love was even more pronounced on “Ms. Jackson,” a massive hit that would define the Outkast “sound” until the group’s final recordings. A humorous clapback against greedy mothers-in-law set to a particularly psychedelic array of backwards drums and dogs, birds, thunder sounds and even a nuptial march, this was high definition psychedelic music as sequenced by a Korg Triton. It was also a deeply personal song, particularly for Andre, who drew directly from his relationship with Erykah Badu, the mother of his child. Though hardly a typical pop topic, it charted #1 and won a Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group, becoming a cause celebre for music critics seeking to champion an alternative to what was then perceived as an onslaught of cheaply made, clichéd southern gangsta rap.

Except that’s not how Outkast saw things. Because for all Stankonia’s genre-bending experimentation, and we’ll have plenty more of that to cover, the album was also deeply committed to depicting and celebrating Atlanta as a center of Southern hip-hop. And if the album’s romantic and psychedelic leanings are usually attributed to Andre, it was Big Boi, as usual, who kept the group grounded in reality rap, doing so to stunning effect on “Snappin & Trappin” alongside newcomer Killer Mike. This was the future Run The Jewels member’s first major appearance, and he does not waste it, tearing into the track with the ferocity that would become his trademark. Crucially, his brash, accented, aggressive delivery was everything the era’s critics didn’t understand about southern hip-hop, and as he and Big Boi traded lines over a beat full of squiggly synth leads, he forced them to understand. As for Andre he … never shows up. You get the sense that he no longer felt he had anything to prove or found joy in this rapping for rap’s sake, just as he’d soon lose interest in hip-hop entirely.

With this breakneck opening stretch in the rearview, Stankonia begins to pace itself, even developing a formula, if you can call deliriously ping ponging between different moods and aesthetics a formula. You have your Atlanta songs, usually headed by Big Boi, painting an audio picture of a surreal, psychedelic city long before that concept was a gleam in Donald Glover’s eye. Interludes like Kim & Cookie featured voices, slang and drawls worlds away from what was spoken in New York, L.A. or anywhere else, while track titles like “Spaghetti Junction” meant little to outsiders, and everything to locals in an era before Wikipedia. Here, Andre and Big Boi would go back and forth on the mic like old times, an increasing rarity not unnoticed by fans.

The best song in this vein, and one of the very best in Outkast’s catalogue full stop, is “Red Velvet,” a slice of space-aged Cadillac music combining the modern funk, electronic and hip hop influences in perfect balance. A warning about the dangers of materialism and getting jacked, “Red Velvet” tackled a difficult topic from an obtuse angle, as Andre used his hook to criticize the vapidity of southern rap by pointing out just how easy a target this made his peers. Crucially, Andre does this without seeming old or bitter, and he achieves this with a stylistic tour de force on the mic. Speeding his voice up, screwing it down, singing on the hook and delivering a four-bar verse that somehow packed more content than most rappers’ albums, it could be his very finest moment as an emcee.

Then there were the ladies jams, which made Big Boi and Andre’s diverging positions clear. “I’ll Call before I Come” is clearly an “Andre song,” concerned about love, romance, pleasing his partner, and getting in touch with his feminine side. Big Boi does contribute, approaching the same topic from a more bragadocious, masculine perspective, but he’s far more comfortable on “We Don’t Luv These Hoes,” whose casual (if sarcastic) misogyny stands in direct contrast to Andre’s lover man angle.

Beyond expanding the group’s fan base beyond your stereotypically male rap listener, both of these tracks played an important role in rooting Outkast’s wild stylistic and lyrical excursions into every day life. Because boy, do those stylistic excursions go wild.

When Stankonia’s first single, “Bombs Over Bagdad” dropped, drum & bass was still a new underground import in America. In fact, rave culture as a whole was only just taking root beyond the Midwest, and even then, it was suffering significant setbacks including Joe Biden’s bigoted RAVE act. Bar Missy Elliot, rap had mostly responded to electronica by embracing its synthesized sounds without switching up the tempo or topics, so when rap’s most progressive group announced their fourth album with their take on jungle, it was an incredibly risky gamble. “B.O.B.” isn’t quite jungle though, it sounds like the genre as made by two guys who didn’t quite “get it” – yet that’s exactly why it works compared to desperate American attempts to copy the English genre. The result was vividly different from absolutely everything else on TV or the radio in the fall of 2000.

Andre’s verse wasn’t so much a stream as a torrent of consciousness, a children’s choir chimed in on the hook, an electric guitar solo dueled with high speed scratching, and the whole thing features multiple bridges and codas. A creative flex in the middle of an album full of creative flexes, “Bombs Over Bagdad” broke all of the rules and still somehow became a smash hit that helped Stankonia go platinum four times over. Its only competition came a few songs later on “Humble Mumble,” another electronic pop song with a flamboyant Andre performance, syncopated drum patterns and (perhaps surprisingly considering “Ms. Jackson”) a stunning hook by Erykah Badu.

Suffice to say, those who bought Stankonia to hear some next shit were very, very satisfied.

And so – with apologies to “Xplosion” and “Gangsta Shit” cause this piece is too long already — the album bounces from street tales to P-Funk revivals to flips on dance music to romance, often all within the same song, until Stankonia’s final stretch of songs carries us deeper into the minds of madness than Outkast had ever dared to go before. “Toilet Tisha” is the album’s most haunting moment, a slow mournful track about teenage pregnancy and suicide, a topic untouched in rap since 2Pac’s earliest single.

Coming off the bravado and bluster of “Gangsta Shit,” it’s a punch to the gut, as Andre sings the entire track through a purple haze of vocal effects, recalling nothing less than Maggot Brain’s eco horror turned personal. “Slum Beautiful” is no less strange, but it’s thankfully an easier listen as Outkast and Cee-Lo sing a druggy song of love (or is it a love song to drugs?) over Hendrixian guitar lines. Finally, Stankonia, and with it, Outkast’s last real group album, ends with “Stanklove.” With Big Boi having already checked out, Andre, Sleepy Brown, and a sped up Big Rube, all cosplay as Funkadelic circa ’71, proposing an alternate vision of Blackness and freedom — light years away from the rest of rap’s concerns at the turn of the century.

Stankonia was the last time Andre and Big Boi would be able to fully reconcile their diverging interests. They did so by writing a love letter to Atlanta in all of its idiosyncrasies, years before the rest of the world caught on, and also by taking the strangest, most far out Black music of their youth and challenging themselves to go further and faster. Simultaneously, the album exposed the fault lines that would soon tear the group apart: Andre was clearly more interested in romantic love, psychedelic freedom, playing the guitar, and singing; while Big Boi focused on a space-aged, futuristic version of the southernplayalisticadillacmuzik the group began with, calling back to 70’s Blaxploitation rather than psychedelia.

The album would go down as a landmark in hip-hop: a pop mega-hit that was simultaneously an artistic triumph, all in an era where rappers were almost always forced to choose one or the other. It also forcefully declared Atlanta the new center of the Hip Hop universe, even as it left southern rap’s established sound in the dust. Ultimately, Stankonia proved so brave a record, and so radical a vision that it would take nearly 4 years before anyone even tried to match it, with Kanye West’s very northern and very different College Dropout delivering the closest attempt (sorry Nappy Roots). And though it inspired a generation (hi Wayne!), I don’t think a major label rap album truly matched Stankonia’s mix of ambition and pop impact until To Pimp a Butterfly 15 years later. And Kendrick’s record wasn’t nearly as fun.

Using Outkast’s speech at the 1995 Source Awards as a framing device for the group’s evolution has become somewhat of a journalistic cliché, but with Stankonia, Outkast not only proved that the South had something to say, but also that it could find new, daring, unconventional ways to say it. And so during a decade where America’s internal balance of power would tip southwards during the Bush administration, critics rushed to Outkast as an exceptionalist example of what Southern rap could be if it wasn’t so concerned with materialism and a quick buck. If they’d listened to the lyrics however, they’d have realized that not only was there far less of a divide between Outkast and their peers than they’d imagined, but that Stankonia was the best and boldest attempt yet to try to resolve the dichotomy of art and pop rap.

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