I would call Outkast the greatest rap group of all time. The thing is, we’re from the same city (ATL), and I’m afraid I’ll sound like a local promoter.
That’s why I always forget to bring ’em up. This is a problem, because the media tends to focus on the wrong aspects of rap; the guns, the gangster fetishism, the bitches and hoes. These things don’t really exist in Outkast’s oeuvre. Integrity? Quality? Talent? Those do, in excess.
I saw a copy of ATLiens in Media Play in 1996, as my first exposure to Outkast. Because it was rap, it was assumed to be laden with vulgarity, and so we weren’t allowed to play it over the PA. The liner notes looked like a homemade comic book, heavily influenced by the Chromium Era of Liefelds and Lees, painstakingly scribbled out and Photoshopped.
Big Boi and Andre 3000 were 20 when ATLiens dropped; they were 18 when they cut Outkast’s debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994. Obviously, the title of the former is a portmanteau of “aliens” and the short form of Atlanta, emphasizing the duo’s unintentional status as industry outsiders.
Why are they usually taken as outsiders? Because that’s the way the world treats true success. Your competitors suddenly notice their weaknesses, in comparison to your natural strengths. The pretenders really freak out, and do things like interrupt live awards shows with their bullshit.
The real ones make music.
Antwan “Big Boi” Patton was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, where I lived from 1990 to 2002. At Media Play, I worked with a guy in the music department who claimed to be Patton’s cousin. He was tall enough to be constantly questioned about whether he plays basketball, by white folks.
Anyway, Savannah is a rather tough place to break out of. There is a very weird aura over that gorgeous, sleepy port town, one I could never place. Spanish moss droops from tree branches like green cobwebs, crawling with spider ticks. A nuclear site upriver ensures the water will always be polluted. The humidity is so oppressive that it licks your palms like a bad dog when you leave your house. The historic district is a planned grid from hundreds of years ago, having escaped Sherman’s wrath, unlike Atlanta. The women are sirens, with all that entails, who will smash unsuspecting men against the cobblestones of River Street. Their voices and wiles are fully weaponized. I barely escaped.
Andre “3000” Benjamin hails from Atlanta, completing Outkast’s cross-Georgia link. Despite my connections to the area, I consider Georgia one of America’s most important states, culturally. Ray Charles and Johnny Mercer came from Georgia. California gets all the press because California has all the retired millionaires. Georgians put their money where their mouth is. Plus, housing isn’t prohibitively expensive here yet.
You could place either Big Boi or Andre 3000 amongst the greatest rappers in history. Both of them have instinctual gifts as performers. Shortly after I moved to Atlanta, Outkast dropped Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a double album where each member filled out their own disc. Want solid proof of what I’ve been talking about? Tell me what tops this:
Nothing does. Nothing tops that.
On Andre 3000’s side, you had the definitive put-down of the “gold digger” (before Fitz & The Tantrums’ “Moneygrabber”, years later), with “Roses”. If Outkast calls a woman a bitch, you get the full story behind it. It’s not a word they tossed around arbitrarily.
They didn’t overdo the cussing, either; that’s “boo boo”, which is what nice older ladies call crap, here in the South. It’s ridiculous how awesome that track is.
In 2000, Outkast released Stankonia, a hazy, immersive masterpiece. At first it sounds evocative of some early, half-remembered form of hip hop, before you realize it’s whole cloth, as distinctive as handwriting. Would you like a slice of the dark side of ATL life? Here’s a nice thick one.
Everyone I know listened to that. We used to swap burned CD-Rs of Outkast discs, just so everyone had them in their car. The bass is always perfectly mixed. Driving the streets of ATL with Outkast thudding out of the windows makes you feel like a complete being. I can’t fully explain it.
This is another instance where I could post YouTube links until the cows come home. There are no bad or subpar OutKast albums. Each one is on dozens of “Best Of” lists. These two guys never took inspiration from competing regions of rappers, instead forging their own unique and historic path. They’re the best there is.
Andre 3000 and Big Boi met at Lenox Square Mall in 1992, at 16. As a former patron of that unholy maze of boxes and concrete, I can assure you; nothing better has ever happened there.