From Underground To Kings: The Evolution of OutKast
April 25, 2014 - 5:05 pm
You don't go from unknown upstarts to arguably the greatest hip-hop group of all time overnight. But it all started with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the duo's debut album that celebrates 20 years tomorrow (April 26). From the Dungeon to Coachella, this is the remarkable, risk-taking journey of OutKast. —Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
Two Dope Boys: The South Got Something To Say (1992-1994)
It starts rather pedestrian for Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton. After signing on the dotted line to powerhouse label LaFace in 1992, the East Point, Atlanta duo later rise to fame as OutKast. They're introduced to the world as a mere afterthought on a remix to TLC's "What About Your Friends," and we can safely say that the future Sir Lucious Left Foot and Three Stacks would snicker at the quite-green pair flexing its best Das EFX impression. "Forget giggly boogly/I'm attack it like a seizure/I got rhymes at my leisure/Time when I need ta/With T to the L to the C," flips an all too eager Andre. Big Boi inconspicuously jumps into the fray with something about "staying close like ketchup." Cute.
But what a difference a year and some change would make. By the time OutKast releases its landmark 1994 debut album Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik, the roots of their everything-in-the-gumbo style can be heard. Yes, the tandem backed up by the mighty Dungeon Family crew rides the mighty funk wave that had become the signature sound of the West Coast. But production neophytes Organized Noize makes sure that the grooves are more than just P-Funk reworks. Nods to Bootsy and Curtis Mayfield coexist in a much more laid-back, atmospheric environment. On the title track as well as straight-ahead cuts like "Ain't No Thang" and "Players' Ball," Dre's and Big Boi's rhymes are rough, rugged and raw. The boys are in full-blown furry Kangol rap mode as OutKast's famed yin-and-yang eccentricity is only shown at a glimpse on the strangely brilliant "Hootie Hoo."
Things Get Weird And Wonderful (1995-1998)
Andre 3000 is officially born and Big Boi becomes the trap boys' go-to MC. Following the criminally underrated, street-praised New Jersey Drive soundtrack single "Benz or Beemer," Mr. Benjamin puts on a green turban and begins weaving space-age, philosophical rhymes. Everything from the title of OutKast's classic sophomore statement (ATLiens) to the futuristic comic book artwork of the album cover suggest that things will never be the same. Their sound is now more self-assured and adventurous as Dre and Big have taken the studio reigns on six of the 15 tracks; their lyrics more complex and layered. "Elevators (Me & You)" ranks as one of the strangest mainstream rap hits of that decade with its psychedelic reggae dub bassline and an infectious chorus that sounds like it was recorded during an acid-drenched dream ("Me and you, your mama and your cousins too...").
By their third studio effort—the peerless Aquemini—OutKast became a legit heavyweight act, basking in the cosmic glow of a third consecutive platinum album. Even more impressive is the duo's risk-taking high art. Nowhere is the duo's musical evolution more pronounced than on the brilliant "Rosa Parks," a work that manages to blend the blues, gospel, dance workouts, and hip-hop without ever coming off as brazenly contrived. Andre 3000 spells it out: "I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game/To stimulate then activate the left and right brain/Said baby boy you only funky as your last cut/You focus on the past your ass'll be a has what." He and Big Boi haven't looked back since.
The Biggest Band On The Planet Hails From...Atlanta??? (2000-2004)
Andre 3000 switches from a turban to an Adams Family Cousin Itt wig, all the while flexing his muscles as hip-hop's best MC holding a mic. Big Boi expands his hard-boiled rhyme palette and makes a powerful case that he is riding shotgun with The Roots' Black Thought as the most criminally slept-on lyricist in modern rap history. Indeed, when OutKast's fourth release Stankonia hits the public consciousness, the ATL representatives are celebrated as the leaders of the new school. And such glowing talk is not just smoke-projected hype. Would anyone else on the musical landscape be insane enough to release the million-beats-per-minute freak-flag anthem "B.O.B." as a single? Could you imagine another hip-hop act taking critical aim at show-offs who wave extravagance around like a badge of honor ("Red Velvet") without coming off as above-it-all sidewalk preachers? "Cap, cap, ya link snap, you slumped off in ya Cadillac/For what though, some diamonds and a Bentley what you dying for?" questions a sober Big Boi. This is greatness.
'Kast, however, is looking past their rap brethren. The double set Speakerboxx/The Love Below shows a band at the height of its artistic and commercial powers. Yes, the press views the Grammy winning Album of the Year as emphatic proof that the longtime partners-in-rhyme were drifting apart in different musical directions. Andre embraces his inner long-haired rock-star ("Hey Ya") as Big dives head first into the juke house blues, soul and funk influences that shaded some of OutKast's earlier work ("The Way You Move"). But the ambitious statement more than makes its underlining point: Radiohead is no longer the most important force on the popular music scene. OutKast is king.
The Good, The Bad, And Hell Freezes Over (2006-2014)
It was bound to happen. When an act is blessed so gloriously by the music gods, you can almost cue the pretentious bullshit. In the case of OutKast it's the dreadful Idlewild film (2006) and its largely uneven soundtrack. Andre 3000's evolution has pulled him well beyond the confines of hip-hop. Soon talk turns to the adventurous visionary abandoning hip-hop all together. Three Stacks mentions that he is bored with rap and leaves Big Boi holding the bag as OutKast goes on an unofficial hiatus. Dre literally goes Hollywood (a Cartoon Network series here, a series of high-profile film roles there), but his former partner keeps up the good fight. Big proves his skill as a true talent scout (his impressive compilation Got Purp? Vol. 2 is highlighted by a then hungry newcomer Killer Mike and future critical darling Janelle Monáe). Big Boi's stellar 2012 solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is hailed as one of the year's most noteworthy triumphs proving—once and for all—that Patton is every bit the equal of his celebrated cohort.
Meanwhile, Andre 3000 methodically returns to the rap fold. Fans marvel at his lack of rhyme rust. Guest verses are treated like a Big Foot sightings. "Your white tee, well to me, look like a nightgown/Make your momma proud, take that thing two sizes down/Then you'll look like the man that you are or what you could be," Andre spits, shocking followers on the remix to the 2007 DJ Unk dance craze anthem, "Walk It Out." Still, an OutKast reunion seemed as likely as Mimi snapping a shower rod. That is until it's announced in mid January that the boys would return to the stage for a series of dream live shows. An kick-off gig headlining Coachella comes off as rushed and uninspired. A follow-up showing meets high expectations as Dre and Big Boi operate like a well oiled unit as opposed to the two strangers that kicked off their return. What can we respect from OutKast. If it's anything like this, we are in for some shit.