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OutKast’s ‘Stankonia’: the experimental blueprint

This week I have been listening to OutKast a lot. Now this is no significant event for me as they’re one of my favourite artists and, for me to find myself as I did this week, listening through their discography in sequence is not out of the ordinary. So, after going through their smooth, laidback debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (a mouthful, I know, but also a title that completely and faithfully describes the spirit of the album), their 1996 sophomore ATLiens, with its ambitious fusion of Dirty Southern hip-hop with outer-space aesthetics, and the 1998 Aquemini, a musical tour-de-force, I arrived at their fourth studio album: Stankonia.

It’s often referred to as OutKast’s more ‘pop-y’ album, and is also frequently cited as the album where creative differences between Big Boi and André first became apparent; something which becomes much more pronounced in the group’s later work. To me though, these are both quite reductive ways of viewing the album – for all its creative merit and cultural significance, to brush it off as ‘just’ OutKast’s pop album seems slightly narrow-minded. In fact, to call it pop at all is really a gross oversimplification. Sure, the album’s second single, ‘Ms. Jackson’, was their first to reach number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but I’m sure you would be hard-pressed to find another album with such an eclectic fusion of genres. Listening to the way the album effortlessly moulds and meshes funk, rock and gospel with the sound of Dirty Southern hip-hop, which they had by then become associated with, is often astounding.

A significant part of how Big Boi and Dré keep the sound of southern hospitality in an album, that often sounds like it came from outer space, is their collaborators

That’s what I love about OutKast. No other artist could pull off a song that marries psychedelic funk with spoken word while ruminating on a tragic tale of teenage pregnancy and suicide. Or an apologetic plea for forgiveness from the mother of a mother of a child out of wedlock (put simply: a “baby’s mama’s mama”) that combines glistening synths with smooth, soulful hooks and impeccable rap verses (that’s ‘Toilet Tisha’, ‘B.O.B.’ and ‘Ms. Jackson’ for anyone interested). But OutKast pulls it off; those three larger-than-life concepts and so many more all within a single album.

A significant part of how Big Boi and Dré keep the sound of southern hospitality in an album, that often sounds like it came from outer space, is their collaborators. The album features all the mainstays of Southern hip-hop at the time: Khujo, Cee-Lo, T-Mo and Big Rube of Goodie Mob fame show up across the album, there’s a Prince-style sex ballad with 36 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo, and a Dungeon Family posse cut for the hip-hop purists (it’s the only one they’ll find though). Southern voices are all over this album, constantly reminding the listener that though the album may sound out-of-this-world, it blasted off from Atlanta, Georgia.

OutKast managed to show both the longevity and global reach of Southern hip-hop

Anybody familiar with hip-hop social media communities will have been witness to, whether consciously or not, a very annoying tendency of people within these social media circles to discuss OutKast like “André 3000 and that other guy”, as if 3 Stacks somehow carried the duo during their career. Claims like this couldn’t be more wrong and Stankonia is proof of that because, rapping-wise, Big Boi outperforms André across the board on this album. You only have to listen to them trade bars at the tail-end of ‘Spaghetti Junction’ to understand where I’m coming from; Big Boi’s flow on his second mini-verse at the end of the song is absolutely unreal and I genuinely get goosebumps every time.

Nowadays, rap music is pop music; that much became clear to me when I walked into a small charity shop in rural England to see the shop’s elderly customers listening on the radio to Don Toliver singing about how codeine got him tripping on Internet Money’s ‘Lemonade’. But there’s a reason why the term ‘Southern’ rarely crops up in hip-hop discussion anymore, because the vast majority of acts in popular rap music are using the style. I’m not claiming OutKast invented trap music, but would people have been listening to T.I. or Gucci Mane in the first place if OutKast hadn’t ‘put the South on the map’?. OutKast managed to show both the longevity and global reach of Southern hip-hop, like none of their Southern contemporaries could, and, looking at the popular artists of today, they were decades ahead of the curve. Hailing from Atlanta alone we have the likes of: Future, Gunna, 21 Savage, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Lil Baby, and Migos. Looking more generally at what the music represents, the ideas and the ethos that fuelled the making of Stankonia, it’s hard to say whether people would’ve been so receptive to Kanye West’s genre-defining experimentation throughout the 2000s, or Gorillaz’ mercurial fusion of hip-hop and alternative, or even Drake’s trademark sing-rapping style, had Big Boi and André not come through with all of those ideas and more at the turn of the millennium.

Stankonia is a challenging listen but it’s still a rewarding one. If you take the time to strip away the layers of the album, digesting it in its entirety from its lyrical themes and Southern slang to the deeply layered instrumentals, you’ll get an appreciation, like I have, that, while initially enigmatic, it’s an album that you can completely immerse yourself in, finding on every subsequent listen some new, unexplored corner of the tracklist. Stankonia is an impassioned proclamation of sheer and total love for the craft of making music. An uncompromised artistic statement, the album’s success rewards it for its weirdness, rewards its experimental qualities, and, in a generation of musicians still living under its influence, and a generation where creativity within the trap genre is sorely lacking, maybe we could take another lesson from Big Boi and Dré and just get weird.

Recommended listening: ‘Snappin’ and Trappin”, ‘Ms. Jackson’, ‘B.O.B.’ and ‘Toilet Tisha’

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