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Heroes eventually die and horoscopes often lie, but Outkast is forever

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Warning: NSFW, language, all that. Do not click on any of the below videos if you are offended by profane language, self-referential racial slurs, or drug references.

Outkast

Operating under the crooked American system for too long. Outkast — pronounced outcast. Adjective meaning homeless or unaccepted in society. But let’s look deeper than that. Are you an outcast?

My interest in rap (or hip hop, or whatever you wish to term it) began in earnest Feb. 19, 2009. Before that day, I listened to rap as caricature. Back when, it was all a tool for athletic hype or an example of extreme capitalistic hedonism or an outlet for big-butted black women to shake and shimmy as inebriated men talked over basstastic beat. Rap ranked somewhere above pop-up books and below country western in my artistic hierarchy.

That Feb. 19 two years ago Michael Eric Dyson lectured at Auburn. The topic sounds exceedingly academic: “Becoming Our Sister’s and Brother’s Keeper in the Post Civil Rights Era.” But more than any message or diversity bon mot, I remember Dyson reciting Biggy and Tupac and Mos Def. “Listen to Mos Def,” he said, pounding the podium, looking every bit a black preacher. All those quotations sounded like the best kind of prose: lyrical, deep, edgy.

I started with Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star. From there, when I grew tired of their socially conscious message, which, I now find, tends to drift toward maudlin, I moved on to the Wu-Tang Clan. After a couple dozen listens of Enter the Wu-Tang, I started exploring outward, reading Wikipedia pages, downloading seminal albums. Eventually I found my way to Outkast.

Sometimes when you’re reading it feels like the author wrote a certain passage or sentence or phrase just for you. For whatever reason, that section hits all the right receptors in your brain. You get it. David Foster Wallace called it clicking. It’s one of the main reasons I read. And it extends to music, movies, art, and everything else in life. To fake clicking is to be termed hipster, poser, fraud.

Despite being white, middle class, and suburban, Outkast clicks for me — the lyrics, the beats, the flow, all of it.

When I sat down to write this post, I was planning on writing about my top five rap albums.

5. Liquid Swords — GZA
4. Deltron 3030 — Del tha Funkee Homosapien
3. Kanye West
2. Illmatic — Nas
1. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik/ATLiens/Aquemini — Outkast

But I found all I wanted to do was write about Outkast. So now I’m going to write about Outkast.

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

As artists develop and learn more about their craft, they discover the “rules.” A song must have this, this, and this to be termed good. A writer must use this plot device and that point of view and these character tropes to construct a novel. [extrapolate for other creative undertakings] There are rules, by gosh, and you must observe them. If you don’t, some frustrated and bitter critic, who was this close, like this close, from being a major writer, if only he’d finished his tetralogy on sexually-frustrated real estate secretaries, from The Newspaper will smack your fanny something fierce.

But there are no rules. There never have been. They are all imaginary. (Like money . . . and Toomer’s rollings after Bear Bryant’s death. That’s called cross-promotion. Nailed it.)

I don’t know enough about the history of rap or the sociological implications of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s release to say it was a definitively unique work. But I do know it sounds unlike anything else I’ve ever heard outside of Outkast. It’s got a distinct sound — a combination of funk, jazz, and the rap of the late ’80s. It’s gritty and raw. There’s a level of un-producedeness not found on any of their other albums. It’s part declaration of self, part career-launching manifesto. Big Boi and Andre were in full hubris-of-youth mode.

Maybe that’s why debut albums dominate rap: it takes a confident, perhaps not-totally-self-aware person to actually believe they can produce something masterful the first go. Maybe when they talk about being the hottest emcee or whatever they actually believe it. Rules and self-doubt play no part. Maybe it’s beginner’s luck.

Best tracks: “Myintrotoletuknow,” “Ain’t No Thang,” “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” “Player’s Ball (Original Version),” “Claimin’ True,” “Git Up, Git Out,” “True Dat (Interlude),” “Crumblin’ Erb,” “Hootie Hoo”

ATLiens

Artists or collaborations generally go one of two ways after a successful first album: they either try to make The First Album Part II or they realize what was successful with the first and build off that foundation. Nas, who’s been trying to produce Illmatic for the last 15 or so years, chose, or was forced down, path one. Luckily for us, Outkast took the second path.

ATLiens keeps the Southern slant while adding more gloss and professionalism. They didn’t overproduce. It’s not Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in terms of “rawness,” but it does have a nice, legitimate sound to it.

I kinda see ATLiens as a connector, maybe even an interlude, between Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Aquemini. It’s like listening to a three-act play — Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (beginning) – ATLiens (middle and interlude) – Aquemini (triumphant climax). Not to say ATLiens isn’t better than 95% of every rap album released in the last 10 years. It is.

Andre was great on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but he really starts to develop into the Andre 3000 of today on ATLiens, the beginning of “Jazzy Belle” being a prime example.

Best tracks: “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac),” “ATLiens,” “Wheelz of Steel,” “Jazzy Belle,” “Elevators (Me And You),” “Babylon”

Aquemini

Aquemini is the culmination of Outkast’s first two albums. Here is Big Boi and Andre at their best, telling stories — specifically  “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pts. 1 & 2” — and rapping over beats similar, at least tangentially, to the those on the first two albums. Aquemini was the best album they could make following the vaguely-defined formula of the first two.

Andre from “Rosa Parks:”

I met a gypsy and she hit me to some life game, to stimulate and activate the left and right brain. Said baby boy you’re only as funky as your last cut. If you focus on the past your ass will be a has-what. That’s one to live with or either that’s one to die to. I try to just throw it at you, determine your own adventure.

Outkast actually got sued by Rosa Parks for the title of the song. Johnnie Cochran was involved.

I don’t really have anything more to say. Drive around your car at night and turn it up real loud and try to rap along, stopping only at stoplights, you know, so people don’t think you’re weird for finding enjoyment in your own car.

If you could only buy one Outkast album, buy Aquemini.

Best tracks: “Return of the ‘G,’” “Rosa Parks,” “Aquemini,” “Slump,” “West Savannah,” “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Pts. 1 & 2,” “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”

Stankonia

I don’t listen to Stankonia often. I respect the direction, though. They’d done all they could within the structure of the first three. And instead of just giving in and repeatedly rehashing Aquemini they took a chance. Dylan went electric. Picasso stopped painting portraits.

Stankonia, overall, sounds like an uneven album made by collaborators with diverging ideas of what the duo’s music should be. It sounds like a concept album, which is why I was confused to read on Wikipedia that it’s considered to have a more “commercial and mainstream appeal,” and that the first three albums were considered “darker and deeper.” Agreed on the darker and deeper, but more mainstream? I can barely listen to the last half of the album.

Best tracks: “So Fresh, So Clean,” “Ms. Jackson,” “B.O.B.,” “Red Velvet,” “Gangsta S***”

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

I bought the censored version of this album from Walmart while in high school in an effort to add some of that cutting-edge rap to my music library, a library which consisted of various alternative Christian rock groups, the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, and the 1999 and 2000 versions of the Best of Rick and Bubba. Every time I gave a friend a ride my junior year of high school, I made sure one of these two discs was in the CD player. “You always play this when I’m in the car. Is this the only CD you own?” . . . “Yes. Yes it is.”

I’ve never been overly fond of this double album. “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” are lots of fun and “Unhappy” is a very good song, but neither album comes close to anything on the first three. Of course, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was Outkast’s greatest commercial success and won Album of the Year at the 2004 Grammy’s, becoming the first record containing solely hip hop to win the award. So what do I know. The people spoke.

[I’m going to conveniently skip Idlewild as I have neither watched the movie nor really listened to the album.]

Post-Outkast

Big Boi released his first real solo album, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, last year. The beats are solid and driving-worthy. The production and guest rappers are both top-notch. But his rapping on Sir Lucious Left Foot just doesn’t feel as dense. You don’t have to really listen or make the same sort of early-Outkast effort to really hear every word Big Boi has smoothly and seemingly-effortlessly strung together. Which is and isn’t a shame. Sometimes you just want to hear some whacky opera sampling as Big Boi raps about nasty things. That’s the kind of album Sir Lucious Left Foot is. It’s fun.

Andre 3000’s the rare artist who seems to have maintained his early brilliance, if not improved. His phrasing, his imagery, everything about his verses, are just so far ahead of any other rapper out there right now. I truly think he’s the greatest lyricist to have ever lived. It’s even more apparent when he’s not rapping directly opposite to Big Boi, who’s a great lyricist in his own right.

For example:

According to Big Boi, Andre’s working on his own solo album. After it’s released, the two are going to make another Outkast album.

In Conclusion: I’ve spent the last six or so months driving around listening to Outkast. I was late to the party as usual, and I listened within a vacuum, but I can say with all honesty that I think Outkast is the greatest rap group to have walked the Earth. If you enjoy rap or hip hop in any form, you should give Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, ATLiens, and Aquemini a listen.

If you think it’s all about pimpin’ hoes and slammin’ Cadillac doors, you probably a cracker, or a ***** that think he a cracker, or maybe just don’t understand. An outcast is someone who is not considered to be part of the normal world. He’s looked at differently. He’s not accepted because of his clothes, his hair, his occupation, his beliefs, or his skin color. Now look at yourself. Are you an outcast?

About Ben Bartley

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