OutKast is a group that should never chart. From the laid-back drawl of “Elevators,” to the harmonica bridge of “Rosa Parks,” to the rapid-fire drums of “B.O.B.,” the group’s singles always seem to go against the radio groove of the times. And neither Dre nor Big Boi has managed to make himself into a superstar. By pop-music law, the Atlanta duo should have been cast out of the industry long ago and condemned to being a mainstay on somebody’s local hiphop scene.
But OutKast is that rare group that manages to remain artistically adventurous yet somehow sell records by the truckload. It has become popular for R&B and hiphop artists to brag that their music can’t be classified. In R&B, this boast usually manifests itself in albums that degenerate into mélanges of different musical styleswith boredom as the common denominator. In hiphop, it’s usually just a marketing ploy. But if any group could justifiably argue against being categorized, it’s OutKast.
With its overreliance on looped samples, contemporary black popular music has lost much of its complexity. These days, if you hear the first 20 seconds of an R&B or rap single, you’ve heard the entire song. As Lauryn Hill once lamented, the whole idea of songs having parts has pretty much been abandoned. OutKast isn’t exactly the resurrection of Stax/Volt, but the group comes as close as anyone working today to making music that doesn’t sound like a skipping record. The duo’s last opus, Aquemini, was a masterpiece constantly varying in tone and texture. From its angst-filled intro through its meditative title track, Aquemini never telegraphed itself. That the album went platinum in a world dumbed down by Lil’ Kim and DMX is amazing.
OutKast’s latest album, Stankonia, is far from perfect. The tracks are irritating in places, the cameos almost always fall flat, and the group’s misogyny repeatedly mars the record. Yet Stankonia is perhaps the most enchanting hiphop release of this year, if only because OutKast continuously rolls the dicesomething that most contemporary rap acts are loath to do. There are few exceptions: With the recent Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, De La Soul released what amounts to an underground party record, and Company Flow consistently attacks eardrums, but even its dissonance becomes formulaic after a while.
Stankonia is a continually shifting soundscape. The album mixes ingredients ranging from funk to jungle to Miami bass to produce a fresh dish with each track. The album’s most successful example of this soulful eclecticism is the lead-off single, “B.O.B.” The song marries a rather ordinary bass line with staccato drums and the wailings of the Morris Brown College Gospel Choir. “B.O.B.” reaches its strongest point at its conclusion, where a lesser song would simply fade into silence, ending with a chaotic convergence of crashing drums, manic turntable cuts, and a wailing guitar solo. “B.O.B.” is exactly the sort of song that shouldn’t be popular, yet it’s helped power Stankonia toward almost-certain platinum status.
The swooning keys and heavy bass of “Ms. Jackson,” the album’s second single, are more radio-friendly, but the song breaks with the conventions of mama tribute by examining Big Boi’s relationship with his “baby’s mama’s mama.” As Big Boi rhymes from the perspective of a jilted single father, Dre takes a more philosophical look at life commitments: “King meets Queen then the puppy love thing/
Together dream ’bout that crib with the Goodyear swing/On the oak tree I hope we feel like this forever/
Forever, forever, ever? Forever, ever/Forever never seems that long until you’re grown/
And notice that the day-by-day ruler can’t be too wrong.”
In addition to its musical complexities, Stankonia is elevated by the fact that both Big Boi and Dre are damn good MCs. The South catches a lot of flack for being a haven for wack rappers like Luke, Master P, and Trina. This is the main reason why Dre, despite OutKast’s popularity, is one of the most underrated MCs in hiphop. Although his work on Stankonia doesn’t top his performance on Aquemini, it proves that Dre is still at the top of his game.
But Stankonia fails where almost every rap album fails, offering immature depictions of women and superfluous cameos. The cartoon portraits and cheap braggadocio on cuts like “I’ll Call Before I Come,” “We Luv Deez Hoez,” and “Snappin’ & Trappin’” do nothing but detract from Stankonia’s complexity and, in places, make it unlistenable. As do the album’s numerous cameos. Dre and Big Boi hold up their end of the bargain throughout, but cameos by nonlyricists like Gangsta Boo and Slimm Calhoun simply make the listener want to exercise the CD player’s Program button.
Nonetheless, Stankonia is rarely condescending, consistently challenging, and as good as any hiphop album released this year. But the record’s real significance is that its popularity challenges the makers of mechanized music. For years now, half-assed recording artists have used a drug dealer’s argument, asserting that they are only giving the people what they want. Stankonia is proof positive that the artist sets the bar for his or her craftand that the people are sometimes smart enough to appreciate some risk-taking. CP