The stank on ya
As OutKast brace for superstardom, their challenging, formula-busting new CD Stankonia may be its own worst enemy
Much has been made of the differences between Andre "Dre" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, the two forces that give OutKast its weight as Atlanta's premier hip-hop act. As Dre, cast as the thoughtful, ascetic vegan, seems more and more like Jimi Hendrix or Prince, Big Boi — viewed as the hard, lecherous player — seems more like a streetwise Hugh Hefner. But it's deep in the chasm between the two where the duo have discovered the territory of Stankonia, OutKast's just-released fourth album and the best hip-hop record so far this millennium.
Over the past seven years, OutKast has risen to the top of Atlanta's hip-hop crop with the help of fellow Dungeon Family cohorts Organized Noize and Goodie Mob and reached a new artistic and commercial height with 1998's double-platinum Aquemini. Stankonia, however, attempts to up the ante on OutKast's stature, with pre-release hype touting them as a major pop crossover waiting to happen. But even as Dre and Big Boi prepare for Stankonia's grand unveiling, they also find themselves in a potentially tricky place. Stankonia, while undeniably tuneful, is so genre-bending and unconventional — so different from anything they've done before — they run the risk of not only alienating their fans, but also of falling between the cracks of radio's tightly formatted airplay.
A week before the release of Stankonia, Dre is trying to relax as the van he rides in zooms down the West Coast, transporting Dre and Big Boi from Seattle to Sacramento. To pump up Stankonia, they're traveling a promotional road that has taken them from New York to Atlanta to France to Seattle, with no immediate end in sight.
"It's like a little frenzy going on right now," yawns Dre. "It's hard, yeah, it's tough. It's like we're on some kind of escalator," he laughs.
Indeed, word of Stankonia's ascent has been heralded by everything from cover stories in hip-hop magazines such as XXL to previews in the mainstream rag Entertainment Weekly, and the group's scintillating advance single, "B.O.B.," has been welcomed by fans, radio and even MTV.
Such a reception bodes well for OutKast since "B.O.B." — shorthand for "Bombs Over Baghdad" — is just the tip of Stankonia's formula-crushing iceberg. Hardly the type of easily palatable opening single meant to ensure healthy first-week album sales, "B.O.B." is about as friendly as a rabid Rottweiler. With a hyper-fast beat that sounds like a hybrid of "Whoomp! There it is!" and an aggressive Roni Size jungle groove, raw guitars, frenetic scratching, a gospel choir and rapid-fire rhymes that compete for attention with a free-flying funk hook.
"Life right now is so fast-paced," Big Boi says of the song, "You know, the youth, the choice of drug has changed from marijuana, which will chill you out, to X or E, and now motherfuckers are all hyper. We're just changing with the pace of what's going on out in the streets. We go out to clubs and see what people move to, so we just do our own interpretation."
It's that willingness to do things their own way rather than regurgitate hip-hop formula that makes Stankonia sound so fresh. At the same time, Stankonia is more melodic, more musical than most current hip-hop, with nods to the layered keyboards and guitar solos of '70s hard funk, and even includes a few "singing" songs with little or no rapping (Dre, though, clarifies that his singing voice is "not like smooth jazz, Luther Vandross-type singing or anything like that").
Where "B.O.B." works as Stankonia's shock troops, sending the message that OutKast is out to break the rules, the record's second single, "Ms. Jackson," typifies their newfound musicality and could very well wind up as OutKast's biggest hit yet. Over a laconic groove, with a lazy piano beating out a sneakily ironic riff from "The Wedding March," OutKast offer what surely must be the first-ever hip-hop apology to baby's mama's mama. "I'm sorry Ms. Jackson," Dre croons, "I am for real! Never meant to make your daughter cry, I apologize a trillion times."
Though Dre says the song isn't addressed to anyone in particular, both Dre and Big Boi know the situation first-hand: Dre, who composed the song's melodic hook, went half on a baby three years ago with well-known R&B diva Erykah Badu. Big Boi, meanwhile, is engaged to the mother of his daughter Jordan, and the couple is currently expecting a second child. A son from another relationship, the 8-month-old Bamboo, was still unborn when Big Boi name-dropped him in "B.O.B."
Even beyond the early singles, Stankonia proves its depth. From the strutting old-school vibe of "So Fresh, So Clean" to the herky-jerky, sprightly romp of "Humble Mumble," to the seductive trip-funk of "Stanklove" to the gritty guitar-grind of "Gasoline Dreams," Stankonia holds up as remarkably consistent in its inconsistency. The group's first release recorded in their own studio, also called Stankonia, the album allowed OutKast the time and freedom to up the level of sophistication and experimentation in the music. "We cut almost the whole thing there," says Big Boi, proudly. "Since we have it 24/7, we can use it whenever we get some inspiration."
But even with the grand achievement that is Stankonia, indications are that OutKast has more exploring to do. They talk of making their next studio album a double CD featuring one-disc solo albums by each. "We're both extremes," Dre says, "and we make a certain chemistry when we do the albums together. It's a compromising sound. But when you do a solo album, it's like your baby. It's an uncompromised sound. The contrast, that is the OutKast sound."
They've also begun to expand their influence, both on the local music industry and on urban music as a whole. Last year, after inking a deal with Elektra Records, Dre and Big Boi set up their own label, Aquemini Records. The label's first release, the single "It's OK" by rapper Slimm Calhoun (co-written by OutKast and featuring Dre) shot directly toward the top of the rap charts, while Calhoun's debut CD, The Skinny, drops early next year.
Having advanced from their early days at the old Tri-Cities High School in Southwest Atlanta, through early albums Southernplayalisticadillacmusic (1994) and ATLiens (1996), to a place at the top of the international hip-hop elite, OutKast remains firmly planted in the rich soil of their hometown. But where once the duo served as Atlanta's hip-hop ambassadors, name-dropping area spots and popularizing the "A-T-L" nickname, Stankonia's relative absence of local color begs the question of whether (like LaFace label head L.A. Reid) OutKast has graduated beyond its hometown. Even "Spaghetti Junction," Stankonia's most glaring local reference, is actually a holdover from the group's ATLiens sessions.
Rather than feeling like they've matured past the confines of the local hip-hop scene, however, Dre and Big Boi actually feel like Atlanta has outgrown them. "Atlanta is the birthplace of OutKast," Dre says, "and we've been giving it its rep from the start. But we figured by this time, everyone knows about Atlanta. Now, man, we just doing our thang."
And what a beautiful thang it is.