Look back at the cover of Stankonia. Not the kaleidoscopic deluxe version, but the original, With Andre and Big Boi still standing next to each other, but barely. At first glance, everything looks effortless cool. Big Boi as “southerplayalistic” as ever, in a B-boy stance sporting a jerry curl and an oversized white t-shirt, and Andre looking like the lovechild of Hendrix and Morrison, fully liberated. His hair is straightened, his pants are leather and his hands are extending ever outward, as if he wants to release his spiritual energy unto us all. The two are visibly on different sides of an artistic spectrum, yet somehow they harmonize. They belong together.
Upon closer look at the image, we can see it’s also writing on the wall. A warning sign of the widening rifts between the player and the poet. Look at their neckwear. Andre wearing cotton candy bohemian beads and Big Boi, a silver chain with a medallion that pays homage to the Dungeon Family. As one drifts further away from home, the other still identifies with it strongly. Andre’s pants are black; Big Boi’s shirt is white. The only way this shot could embody the duo’s growing contrasts more is if the American flag in the background, already black and white, was simply a ying-yang. “Me and my nigga we roll together like Batman and Robin” is what Big Boi told us just an album earlier. It was starting to look like this may not always be the case.
Outkast’s career was always based on a series of contrasts that all blended together to create a flowing and out-of-this-world uniqueness. The most notable one is the duality of the two members themselves; but, the duo merged much more than just their astrological signs. They wore many dichotomies, delicately balancing mainstream appeal and purity of vision, pop success and creative eccentricity, the club and the conscious, future, past and present sounds, outer-space and southern soils. Long story short, these contrasts gradually intensified over time, first leading to sprawling masterstrokes but then eventually to split-albums followed by a fade out at what seemed like the peak of their stardom. It’s sad that the component at the core of Outkast’s genius is the same one that ultimately tore the two apart. However, in their short time together, they managed to say it all. Their body of work is nothing short of perfect, universally beloved, inimitable and immortal forever, forever ever….you know the rest.
With that, here are three of their shining moments…
1. “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” (from Aquemini, 1998)
On “Da Art of Storyellin”, Big Boi doesn’t have time to fuck a girl he meets at the mall because he has to pick up his daughter. He knows being late is gonna cost him with his baby momma and he cares enough about that to refrain from “cuttin” Suzy, but not enough to waste their rendezvous entirely, ultimately settling for a blowjob in the parking lot.
A verse after Big Boi rewards Suzy for her thoroughness and kosher understanding with “a Lil’ Will CD and a fuckin’ poster”, Andre is standing next to her friend Sasha on a street corner. In the middle of the ghetto, they stare at the stars and talk about what they want to be when they grow up. Sasha chillingly and hopelessly answers with “alive” which makes Dre think, about his own life and that of the girl whose eyes are staring back at him. Time takes these two down very different paths that Andre still hopes will someday intersect. Sadly, just two weeks after he comes home to find that Sasha is gone and living with an abusive boyfriend, she dies of a heroin overdose.
Both of these scenes are nostalgically easy to imagine, even if we’ve never experienced them…
Above all else, “Storytellin” places the braggadocios and the conscious, two archetypes widely separate from one another in rap, side by side in a portmanteau of organic balance. Big Boi at his most carefree and unforgiving and Andre at his most vulnerably bare somehow are on the same page, coming together to make music that is ethereally humane (the realness is surreal). It probably shouldn’t work. These two types of people clash in their designs; yet despite the fact that each’s sexual relationships and entire outlooks are quite apart from the other’s, Big Boi and Andre belong nowhere other than beside each other, congealing their stories.
And both are master narrators, vividly ushering us into snapshots of southern life. When I turn the song on, I’m transported to Big Boi’s ’77 Seville in a strip mall parking lot, as the blue sky turns purple and the sun fades down. I’m with Andre and Sasha, lying in an old grass field in the quiet hours of a summer night. Im learning different things and sharing different experiences with each of them, but enjoying my time with both. It makes me realize that Outkast’s two humans served and mastered unique purposes. They weren’t meant to challenge one another but rather to take each other to places unreachable alone, to give each other added dimensions. Thus, comparing Big Boi and Andre would be a misunderstanding of their partnership. If 3 Stacks is the spaced out poet too deep and emotionally available for his own good, then Big Boi is the street savvy player, the life of the party with eternal charisma and charm. Like the ying and yang themselves, these contrasting characters each reach orbit once they intertwine.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the beat is also otherworldly. “Chi Che Yea…”
2. “Liberation” (from Aquemini, 1998)
In 1996, Dre shifted from gangsta pimp to spiritual genie in a widely monotonous and heteronormative hip hop community. He swapped his starter caps and Braves jerseys for polyester turbans and rainbow dashikis. He had recently gone sober and vegetarian, becoming more holy and flamboyantly curious at the same damn time in an artistic realm that wasn’t much of either. By the time ’98 came around, he didn’t give a single fuck what you thought about him. Wearing platinum glamour wigs and bumblebee yellow spacesuits, he was miles more P-funk meets NASA meets the man in the yellow hat than College Park or Decatur.
And nobody knew what to make of it, assuming he was either on drugs, gay, in a cult or a combination of all three of these things. “You have to be a strong n*gga to take that ridicule,” he told The Source later that year. Andre 3000’s boldness in style was a result of him being creatively free, liberated from the opinions and judgements of others and feeling strong because of that.
But the way he dressed wasn’t a pose or a plea for attention. It was truly in line with the indefinability and creative surrealness of the art itself. This all amorphously boils to surface on “Liberation”, a song that is an embodiment of its title both in message and music. As Dre tells us “cant worry bout what a n*gga think”, Outkast and tribe are at their most spiritually awakened and creatively unchained, diving further than ever before into funk, jazz, cosmology and afrocentric excursions of worlds beyond the ATL or earthly boundaries. As with many Outkast songs, “Liberation” sparks the mind, the soul and the body all at once and sounds like the work of convention-shattering extraterrestrials. The words read like scripture and the music flows like water, making Liberation run like the Nile: pacific but powerful and with a groove that extends. The fluttering, creaky keys, the kalimba hymns, the sounds of marine blue oceans and leafy tree branches, “Liberation” moves with an East African sway. Its backbone (the drum and bass pattern) is alive, giving the impression that the groove may go on forever. It sounds like perfect hip hop yet entirely apart from the genre, like nothing that came before it yet an aquarium of ancestral sounds. It’s intimate yet distant, holistically comforting yet completely unfamiliar, true to its southern soul roots yet transcendent of them, stretching to the solar system. “Liberation” is so gloriously unplaceable that it has to be the handiwork of aliens. An underwater rainforest, tranquil but shining on its own deserted island. Fully emancipated and fully content in a unique world that it, and only it, inhabits…LIBERTAD.
3. “Humble Mumble” (from Stankonia, 2000)
Life is like a jungle. Full of obstacles and things we can’t predict yet pulsing with beauty all around. On “Humble Mumble”, Outkast and Erykah Badu find themselves outside, in nature, wandering through the dark and complex yet ultimately thrilling jungle that is life itself. The trials and imperfections (that make life life instead of an algorithm) are audibly present, but they are placed in the rearview: you can see them if you look back, but in the end, they’re still behind you. “Humble Mumble” choses to focus roads ahead. As it plods along, building itself up and gaining in strength and perspective until it crumbles at its very end, the song is always moving forward.
And so much is going on. A mother is breastfeeding, birds are flying through the sky, a flower has been plucked a left to die, but now it can find its way to the sun, all over music that swirls and grows and cascades and breathes. In this sonic world, we are all free and flowing as one. Even death is brimming with life and lush colors.
From what we learned earlier, it may not always be this serene. At times we are forced to evolve, even put dreams to rest, and no matter how pretty of a picnic we plan, we cannot stop the rain from falling. The important thing is to adapt, not give in, because that’s all part of life. For the highs there are lows, with pleasure comes pain. It’s the contrasts that make us grow stronger. The beauty of life lies in the contrasts.