Outkast should be my favourite group – by far – instead of the very different ‘one of my favourites’. They should be as famous and celebrated as The Black Eyed Peas and as respected and credible as… Not The Black Eyed Peas.
And all it would have taken is a subtle change of mindset sometime in the late 90s or early dubbos by one Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 (and an awful lot of other things for that matter).
It seemed Andre was a little tired of the rap game and dreamt of bigger things. Not wanting to limit himself creatively, Andre wanted broader recognition as an artist, not merely a profane stereotypical ‘bitches, 40 bottles and blazin up’ guy. He had aspirations of being a real actor. Not one of those Ice Cube types. As a gentleman of taste and flair he wanted to be a clothes designer, and I don’t mean the Outkast clothing label that emerged last decade to moderate success, high end ritzy stuff for the dapper gent.
Now this was before the ill-fated (but ironically massive selling) double album released a decade ago. An album that produced a slew of hit singles, but also illustrated clearly the schism between Andre and long time partner Big Boi, who for his part has never wanted to be anything but a stereotypical rapper (and occasional bad actor in awful films).
Since that time Andre has become more and more withdrawn musically, popping up periodically for guest spots and seemingly randomly released singles that tease longtime fans so. This continues to this day, though I have long ago given up and stopped listening to the ‘Outkast reforming to release new album’ and rumours spread by Big Boi that something is on the way.
The cost of change
So to recap; a decade ago one half of Outkast over thought his situation and chose a career change. Let’s think of what what we gained by this decision…
14 imdb credits, including bit parts in Be Cool and Semi-Pro, with his best role and film being Four Brothers, which is still only decent.
The Idlewild project. A film made essentially to capitalise on the fact that Outkast wanted into films and had a built in fan base willing to come along. I was one of them. Unfortunately while he film had flair and some enjoyable moments, it seemed unpolished, and the accompanying soundtrack that I salivated over for months prior to its release was basically half arsed, with only a few worthwhile songs.
Appropriately enough the best song by far was Morris Brown, a song that was notable for an absence of Andre.
That same imdb list has Andre playing Jimi Hendrix in a film to be released this year, another musical genius – and I don’t use the term lightly in either case – who saw his creative years cut too short.
I firmly believe in Andre’s natural charisma and immense talent and sincerely hope that he brings life to the Jimi story, I just think his genius is better served in music.
We all know Michael Jordan was a very competent baseball player, but that’s not what we remember him for today…
Anyway that’s what we gained, to be frank not much. The following four albums that follow are examples of what we may have missed out on. I could reel off the titles and talk about the tracks off the top of my head without consulting the Internet or cd covers. Actually for the most part I did.
I have listened to each album 50+ times and drag them out a few times per year at intervals. I have no intention of ever ‘growing out of’ listening to them, regardless of out of touch I might seem, which is already a lot anyway.
I lament not being aware of the arrival of a fresh faced duo bursting onto the scene in 1994. It took me another 5 years to twig to their greatness, and by that time they had released another 2 all time classics and a brace of ***** tracks to lift the overall standard of my iPod.
Southernplayalisticadillakmuzik is a work of amazing maturity and easily recognisable class. It is soaked in immaculate production and peppered with still memorable tracks that hold up to this day.
Andre’s loping drawl and thoughtful rhymes are already on display, ditto Big Boi’s clever wordplay and unique pronunciation.
Many groups would give their top half dozen groupies to be able to claim a half dozen tracks as good as Myintrtoletyouknow, Ain’t no Thang, Player’s Ball, Hootie Hoo, Crumbling’ Erb and the title track in their entire career.
Two eighteen year old boys just churned them out in one album without a Kanye or Jay-Z ‘big brother’ their in the wings for a boost or to source a ‘so hot right now’ guest star.
And it was all just beginning…
If Southernplayalisticadillakmuzik was dubbed Southern rap, then Atliens was the first concerted effort by Outkast to elude categorisation and make even fans second guess themselves.
No longer party boys strutting about with their chests puffed out, the albu embraced a new angle that was deliberately out of touch with the prevailing trends of the time. Or for any time for that matter, unless you can recall a bunch of other hip-hop albums about space travel and alienation from the era.
I would list this as the most even album on the resumé – a good and bad thing. While a total absence of bad is always a positive, I find it hard to point to a single track and recommend it with the confidence borne of knowing you potentially just changed someone’s musical destiny. Every other album had at least one such highlight track. It is lack of one that has me ranking Atliens as the least of Outkast’s four classic albums.
Hot on the heels of the so called ‘least’ is the undisputed ‘best’. An album that I’d make sure I grabbed if the house was mon fire… At least after I grabbed my kid (ok I’d make sure my kid grabbed it before I grabbed him).
Straight out of the (pointless) and bang (Return of the G), Bang (Rosa Parks)’ BANG (Skew it on the Bar-B), as strong a triptych of tunage as you may ever see.
While from that point the pace may slow the quality doesn’t for a while yet, the titular track as thoughtful and intelligent and the next half dozen or so tracks strong and consistent, although the between song interlude/skit/whatever’s break the flow a little.
Then *gasp* the first Outkast song I outright hated in Mamacita, still one of the only songs that I will get out of my chair to ff. It is so cliched, so awful, so non-Outkast that it might just be their Rocky 5. Their Catwoman.
Thankfully Spottieottiedopalicious rights the ship somewhat. At a languid 7 odd minutes it features what seem almost stream of consciousness lyrics that stand as some of the strangest Outkast have put on record, but it’s a solid song and a refreshing improvement on Mamacita.
The last three songs are all collaborative affairs with multiple vocalists and dark production. They are all ok but in reality are fairly interchangeable and the album might have been better served with culling one or two of them.
Still, drag Mamacita out the back and smack it, and bench the skits and say two of three closing tracks, and you have yourself a perfect rap album.
As it stands its still pretty close, and of course the iPod allows me to make those cuts guilt free.
By this stage Outkast could no longer pretend to be underground artists trying to get a rep. They had critical love, fans and bucks in the bank.
And if they didn’t the arrival of Ms Jackson made all of the above a formality.
Once it broke it was simply everywhere. Commercial radio played it on the hour and more mainstream (read: scared) stations did the same, only with the salty language blurred out. It’s a great pop song, but as with everything too much isn’t a good thing. I was travelling about the US when the song got ‘big’, and with so many hours on buses and such I must’ve heard the song a kajillion times. After the tenth or so listen I headed out and bought the album, after the 66th listen I was a bit over it.
Still now a decade later, two songs take me back to that holiday, Ms Jackson and David Gray’s Babylon. If nothing else that trip provided me with two absolute staples in my album collection ever since.
Back to Stankonia, an ambitious, dense and for mine patchy album.
The singles rocked. Ms Jackson, So afresh, So Clean and Bombs Over Bagdhad.
The experimentation was obvious, which showed both a duo pushing the boundaries and testing themselves, and a clearly frustrated Andre 3000 tiring of the rap scene. The new stuff introduced the magnificent Bombs Over Bagdhad and the nearly as good ego-boosting So Fresh, So Clean, but also the decidedly average We love deez hoez and Slum Beautiful.
In between are the rich creamy middle that even ok Outkast tracks provide, including Humble, Mumble, Gasoline Dreams, and Snappin’ and Trappin’, a song that won’t ring your bells, but it did introduce Killer Mike to the world.
An album of soaring highs and frustrating lows, Stankonia was the beginning of the end for Outkast as a functioning unit, and the album which most benefits from judicious selection at the iPod synch.
By this stage Andre was coasting and Outkast was running on fumes. But the record label apparently had more albums owed, so the once duo headed to the studio to create two separate albums for the one release.
The fact that Big Boi’s disc is by far the better of the two is expected given Andre’s mindset, but depressing all the same.
Speakerboxxx is Big Boi’s disc. It is consistent, unremarkable, and essentially the most straight ahead hip-hop of the two, and not necessarily in a bad way. The Way you Move sold a bunch but in essence it is good though formulaic and commercial stuff. Similarly Tomb of the Boom and Last Call are both credible tracks.
Unfortunately Flip-Flop Rock is the standout on the album with a wicked piano loop and catchy as hell hooks. The unfortunate part is that the nemesis of credible hip-hop music Jay-Z contributes to the song’s success. Wow how I hate that mogul.
On to Andre’s disc The Love Below. Hey Ya is the obvious, and unarguably a great modern day pop classic in the same way as Beyonce’s Crazy in Love. Aside from that the album is wildly diverse and occasionally interesting, but not very exciting. In fact the best moment aside from Hey Ya and perhaps Vibrate, the best moment of the album is Big Boi’s memorable verse on Roses.
Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that millions more non hip-hop fans proudly snapped this up on the back of the two lead singles than own their four other – better – albums combined.
Someone in the music company had a brainwave; Andre wants to act, so let’ cast him and Big Boi in a musical and we can squeeze a soundtrack album from them in the deal.
It worked of course, but the result was a middling soundtrack to a middling movie. (Check here for my views on the movie.)
Less a soundtrack album than the various cobbled together tracks lying about at the time of recording, Idlewild the album is a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with a bunch of tracks that wouldn’t get within cooee of anything the group released in the 90s.
Perhaps the best of a frustrating bunch is N2U, and Call the Law benefits greatly from a lively Janelle Monae chorus. This is aside from the brilliant and out of nowhere Morris Brown, a rich and layered track from Big B backed by a marching band and with an excellent chorus to boot.
If it is indeed Outkast’s last hurrah as a musical combine, it is a good one. Tellingly though, Andre is nowhere to be seen.
Since then all we have been drip fed as Outkast tragics is teasing gossip and rumour and occasional guest spots, none of them worth hunting down, and nothing that would budge much from any greatest hits album.
Big Boi on the other hand has released a couple of solo albums, both of which I will take a quick look at.
A mouthful of a title, and a fairly mouth watering album, bettering Idlewild and the double album handsomely.
Sir Lucious is the work of someone desperately trying to prove to one and all that they can do it all by themselves. Almost every song announces itself as if it should be a universally welcomed classic, with bombastic arrangements and attempted hooks throughout.
While aiming for the fences is admirable, it simply shows that while Big Boi is an underrated emcee and funnier than he is often given credit, Outkast was a collaborative effort that benefited from Andre’s ying to Big’s yang.
Follow Us has a delicious chorus, Shutterbugg bounces along precociously and Tangerine embeds itself effortlessly somewhere near your brainstem.
Elsewhere Be Still once again that if Janelle Monae doesn’t make it as a solo artist, her niche as a powerful hook singer is hers for the taking.
Sir Lucious is a fine modern day hip-hop album thankfully (mostly) vocoder free, it just isn’t an ‘Outkast’ album.
With practically every song having one and sometimes more guest appearances, I took this as a sign that perhaps Big Boi misses working with others, though none of the collaborative efforts really hum, especially the bland Kelly Rowlands track.
Maybe Big Boi used all of his ideas with Sir Lucious, or maybe he feels he has nothing left to prove anymore. The fact is that most of Vicious Lies is quite samey, heavy with synthesisers and a theme that is almost 80s.
I haven’t yet listened to the album enough to fully appreciate it, but in the four or five run-throughs so far only Gossip and Shoes for Running wow me as far as the traditional stuff goes.
What surprised me are the last two songs on the album, Tremendous Damage and Descending, on which Big Boi does more singing than rapping. Both are down tempo numbers different to anything I have heard from the Outkast stable, and seem to directly reference his Father’s passing heavily.
Perhaps it is the deeply personal nature of each song, or maybe Big Boi hasn’t yet realised his knack for creating slower tracks. Whatever the reason, while being the last tracks on the album in a section usually thought of as filler, these songs may represent a new direction for the shorter half of Outkast, a shouldabeen-mighty duo that at one stage looked to be changing the face of hip-hop for the better.
Unfortunately thanks to Andre 3000’s ambitions leading him elsewhere, we are stuck where we are now, with autotoned Kanye’s , lazy and overrated Jay-Zs, and a million other mediocre Lil’s of all kinds.
In truth only a couple of competent hip-hop groups are still active and relevant today, De La Soul, People Under the Stairs and The Roots, though I hope Ugly Duckling and/or Roots Manuva prove they are one again worthy with their next release.
The only thing for sure is that Outkast won’t be joining them, which fills me with sadness. At least we will always have albums 1-4…