From "the south got something to say" to "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," OutKast have changed the game.
There are moments of musical awakening that stay burned into one’s brain for the rest of their natural lives. Those instances where, when you hear a song's instrumental or lyrical components, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The instant connection is undeniable. Some of those moments from my life include the soaring guitar riff on Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” the infectious smoothness of The Notorious B.I.G’s “Hypnotize” and, perhaps most memorably of all, the overwhelming feeling of awe that hit me when I first heard “Bombs Over Baghdad.”
It was in the middle of a crowded school dance, my awkward middle school body trying not to embarrass itself while attempting to move to the beat. “B.O.B” was the first single off Stankonia, hitting the charts more than a month before the entire LP became available. As soon as the glittering keyboard riff gave way to the pulsating drum-and-bass-style beat, I stopped dead in my tracks. In that split second, I knew I had heard something great. Something powerful. Something jaw-dropping.
The reason I bring this moment up is that it’s a great reminder of how great Andre 3000 and Big Boi are as rappers and artists. On its own, the track is an incredible piece of work, effortlessly bouncing from stark sociopolitical commentary to pop-ready hooks and back again. However, when considered as one component in the lexicon of rap music that has been released in the 21st century, many casual music fans forget how important OutKast is to the genre and its expansion into different markets.
If you know anything about Southern hip-hop, you know that it was late to the party where mainstream notoriety is concerned. New York and Los Angeles had a stranglehold on the genre for so long, with each coast honing their own unique sound over the span of many years. At the dawn of the new millennium, Atlanta began to emerge as a new breeding ground for rap superpowers, with 3 Stacks and General Patton leading the charge. Before long, it became the epicenter for hip-hop that dominated the pop culture conversation, a trend that continues to this day.
Without OutKast blazing that trail, who knows how many talented Southern emcees and producers would’ve languished in obscurity because they didn’t fit into that East Coast or West Coast archetype. They didn’t invent the ATL sound but they certainly put it on the map. Perhaps even more importantly, they proved it was possible to exist outside of those Diddy or Dre-led inner circles and still make records that captivated the masses who, at the time of my school dance epiphany, were craving something new and exciting. OutKast certainly delivered on that level.
Which brings us back to the music and, where this group is concerned, what an embarrassment of riches it is. Many may claim that their earlier work on albums such as Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and ATLiens is their best work, with moody, melodic grooves setting the tone for much of what Andre and Big Boi would create after; however, I would argue that their post-90s output, which gifted the world such masterstrokes as Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and the criminally underrated Idlewild alongside the aforementioned Stankonia. It was a string of musical success that few could’ve anticipated.
Let’s actually linger on that last point for a moment and consider how that ties into the popularity of an LP like Speakerboxxx. With over 5.5 million units sold in the US alone, certified 11 times platinum by the RIAA, it’s one of the most popular albums of that decade. It also became only the second rap album (after Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. All those accolades, especially for a record that sounds as peculiar in spots as Speakerboxxx does, should not only be considered one of rap’s all-time triumphs, but a moment that helped the genre reach a broader audience
On top of all that, there’s the sheer vocal dexterity and rhyming capabilities that Andre and Big Boi showed off during their time together. Often done at a blisteringly fast pace, the smoothness and playfulness with which the two would spit bars is simply extraordinary. I remember that being one of the qualities that impressed me so much about “B.O.B” in the first place – the notion that the two rappers were executing their rhyming duties with such precision and mastery that, in the end, they had to wait for us to catch up.
There are far too many great moments, both live and in the recording studio, to examine in detail here; instead, I’d call everyone’s attention to the aftermath of OutKast’s quiet departure from the hip-hop scene. Like two actors from a beloved sitcom that went off the air at the peak of its powers, Andre and Big Boi are constantly being asked about the possibility of a reunion. Oftentimes, sequels and rehashes cheapen the effect of the original – I mean, can’t we let them be known for their work in the “old days?” That said, I know plenty of rap fans who want one last album from the two. One last shot at recapturing the glory that once was. I know I’m one of them.
From a commercial, artistic and influence standpoint, OutKast check all the boxes needed to be considered one of the best groups ever. In this case, I think it goes deeper than that. Without them at the helm, hip-hop may have been in danger of turning into a homogenized, two-state product, peddling the same flows and tired scenarios for an untold amount of time. Injecting the South into the genre’s larger conversation and galvanizing the general public with their creativity, they were the ultimate emcee duo: One that didn’t sacrifice their unique approach to making music for the sake of mainstream profitability. For that, as well as countless nights blaring their tracks at max volume in my headphones, I salute them.