For all the acclaim and think pieces, it’s surprising how much of OutKast’s praise came in retrospect. Andre 3000 actually had to take time to explain that 2000’s Stankonia was, in fact, not Outkast’s debut album. The corrections weren’t anywhere near as awkward as what had happened five years prior at the 1995 Source Awards. Southerners Andre 3000 and Big Boi were already doomed in their appearance with the East Coast/West Coast beef threatening to divide the room. Why the hell would anybody listen to what the South had to say? But that’s exactly what ‘Dre said in his terse acceptance speech: “The South got something to say!”
People eventually started listening, though, and soon OutKast’s Atlantan mentality wasn’t that foreign. The duo have carried their home’s values and drawl on their sleeves but have still managed to connect with a wide and dedicated fan base at a profound level. Utilizing the rhyming abilities honed while hanging out in Big Boi’s aunt’s kitchen or jogging around the neighborhood and harvesting the homegrown sounds of the Dungeon family (OutKast’s collective), the duo signed to LaFace right out of high school and debuted with their most straightforward album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994.
Those privy know that this was one of the first albums that truly proved the South has something to say. But something deeper started happening in the basement where the Dungeon Family began. Instead of moving its focus northward and westward, OutKast developed a panoramic view that traveled inward. ATLiens, released in 1996, used a more aquatic sound than its predecessor, as the duo ruminated on shallow materialism (“Mainstream”), lauded and criticized the opposite sex (“Jazzy Belle”), and spoke on the ephemerality of life (“13th Floor/Growing Old”).
Something special was certainly happening on that sophomore effort, but it was arguably on 1998’s Aquemini that OutKast solidified their dynamic. More ears perked as genre-bending spaceman Andre 3000 and slick-talking, earthbound Big Boi looked beyond the floss. The infectious, boisterous “Rosa Parks” made for an instant Southern classic, as did the duo’s musings about the nightlife on the syrupy, seven-minute “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”. Combining weirdness and realness, Aquemini went double platinum after its release.
In other words, OutKast definitely had a voice before they blew up with 2000’s kaleidoscopic Stankonia and 2003’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year and included the epochal “Hey Ya”. And although the crowd at Coachella two weekends ago may have erred towards ambivalence during the duo’s reunion performance, a hip-hop wiz like Questlove clearly sees the bigger picture: “[B]est part? is Outkast has us up at 4:40 in the morning discussing hip hop,” tweeted The Roots’ drummer. “Which is incredible. can’t wait til show hits east coast.”
And why wouldn’t he be excited with what OutKast have done and still have the ability to do? So, while we and Questlove wait, here are 10 songs that best showcase why this duo is one of the greatest.
— Brian Josephs
10. “In Due Time”
Soul Food OST (1997)
OutKast was religiously dedicated to their southern roots before expanding their sonic space on Aquemini and Stankonia. So, it was no surprise when the duo went in deeper after it got booed at the 1995 Source Awards (it wasn’t really OutKast’s fault to begin with). On “In Due Time”, OutKast turned down East Coast/West Coast curiosity for introspection with the help of Cee-Lo’s gospel croon. What’s particularly haunting is a few lines in Andre 3000’s verse: “Who said good folks is not supposed to die/ The same nigga that said niggas is not supposed to cry.” It’s a stunning memo from when hip-hop was coping with losing its two most mythical figures. –Brian Josephs
09. “Skew It on the Bar-B”
“Skew It on the Bar-B” was essentially released as a “Rosa Parks” B-Side; it appeared as a complementary (and complimentary) track on the single, but the song is one of Aquemini’s more grounded excursions into unconventional sound. Sporting a retro sample from the ‘70s TV show Police Woman, the record chugs along like a locomotive as ‘Dre and Big Boi each rattle off words at a crazed pace. In addition to bringing us two exceptional verses from the duo, “Skew It on the Bar-B “ brought the Wu to the Dungeon. Raekwon’s presence on this southern rap gem was wildly uncommon for the late ‘90s, a time when regional bias hindered collaboration, and his verse is a testament to the beauty of cooperation and everything interregional rap can be. Andre, as if not to be outdone by any man, not even The Chef, furiously kicks off the record, and once it gets going, it just keeps on trucking. –Sheldon Pearce
08. “Ms. Jackson”
Forever. Forever, ever. Forever, ever? OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” is a timeless record that will indeed be around forever simply because it is incredibly infectious and simultaneously emotionally moving. Both are hallmarks of great crossover success. The song, allegedly the product of a dispute between Andre 3000 and neo-soul singer/songwriter Erykah Badu and her mother over the welfare of their child, adds a bit of stock to the old adage that pain produces the most compelling music. Big Boi expertly weaves his own tales of struggle in, but smartly plays a supporting role. 3K is the star here. Together, the two MCs mold a record fashioned to withstand the test of time, one that will inevitably be preserved in the rap time capsule. –Sheldon Pearce
“Now throw your hands in the air/ And wave ’em like you just don’t care/ And if you like fish and grits and all that pimp shit/ Everybody let me hear you say O-YEAH-ER.” That’s essentially the main thesis of the song. Not southern dedication or growing awareness. “ATLiens” is propelled by its woozy, spacy synths, but even that strikes as urgent rather than experimental. It’s fitting since Big Boi and Andre 3000 sling some of their most thrilling verses with sharp-tongued precision. Feel free to double take at lines like, “Now, my oral illustration be like clitoral stimulation/ To the female gender, ain’t nothing better/ Let me know when it’s wet enough to enter” and “Cause I’m cooler than a polar bear’s toenails/ Oh hell, there he go again talking that shit.” The blitzkrieg ends with Andre 3000’s nod to his growing awareness. –Brian Josephs
06. “Hey Ya”
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
Every OutKast fan will begrudgingly tell you without a second thought that “Hey Ya” is absolutely, positively, unquestionably, without a doubt not the duo’s best song. That said, leaving “Hey Ya” out of any “Best of OutKast” list would be akin to leaving Thriller out of a “Best of the ‘80s” list because it’s overrated or leaving “Empire State of Mind” out of a “Best of Jay Z” list because it’s not “old-school Jay Z” (he advises you: “Niggas want my old shit, buy my old albums” off “On to the Next One”, which is featured on the same album). Discography context should not shield a project from being remembered as a moment, and OutKast’s — or rather Dre’s — full-blow Billboard crossover is no different. Perhaps the religious OutKast fan should accept “Hey Ya” as a sampling — albeit a misleading one — to the cursory fan. Maybe better yet, “Hey Ya” stands as further proof of the timelessness of OutKast; it wasn’t just some little thing cooked up in the South. It’s pretty interesting, really: The road from “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)” to a phenomenon that would be practiced by amateur guitarists for decades to come. –Brian Josephs
05. “Elevator (Me & You)”
Probably the grooviest record in the entire OutKast discography—and that’s saying something—“Elevators (Me & You)” may also be one of the duo’s most well-written songs. Both MCs are some of rap’s premier storytellers, as displayed in countless outings and preserved on wax, and it shows here in the subtlest of manners. OutKast is big on the use of symbolism, and the elevator represents the rise out of the basement to the figurative penthouse, reflecting the group’s growing success. The song’s lyrics touch on various aspects of the group’s ascension and also cover the troubles of success. It’s the thinking man’s approach to braggadocio. –Sheldon Pearce
Featuring boisterous horns and an Isley Brothers-channeling bass line, part of “SpottieOttieDopaliscious’” mystique is how it uses the beauty of human language to help pull the listener into its lush night scene. Andre 3000 and Big Boi trade in technical prowess for a spoken word technique that trickles its plot with arousing mellifluousness. The duo’s southern accent echoes throughout the seven-minute masterpiece, but instead of drawing attention to regional differences, the drawl breeds a sense of familiarity between the rappers and the listeners in the sinfully sultry soundscape. Perhaps that’s the most beautiful thing. One of OutKast’s secret charms is that it never forgets the sublimity of people simply being people. “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” is part West Indian parading and part ’60s/’70s soul, but it’s all connected to a blues sensibility that’s gripping. The seven minutes are a non-factor through the cloudy piss and the hood-reppin’ after a club fight. –Brian Josephs
03. “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)”
The soul of any great story is its characters. This song, the third and final single off Aquemini, doesn’t have new topics; drug abuse, unintended pregnancies, and adultery still have their way here. But the vices are much more heartbreaking when there are names attached to them. Big Boi, still not quite grown up, decides to neglect an obligation for pussy. We’ve all been there, right? But Big Boi’s live-for-the-now lifestyle seems justified compared to the tragedy of Andre’s verse. A girl who used to be full of life is found dead, “needle in her arm, baby two months due.” Andre remembers her haunting words: “I said what you wanna be, she said, ‘Alive’/ It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes/ I coulda died.” Her name was Sasha Thumper… –Brian Josephs
02. “Rosa Parks”
“Rosa Parks” is among the greatest rap songs of all time. The record epitomizes OutKast as a duo: forward-thinking country funk with a nod to the past. Though they have always been deeply tied to their southern roots, they have never been particularly interested in letting it define their sound. “Rosa Parks” is the archetype for this blueprint; it’s where pedigree meets innovation. Its ties to the community are unmistakable – the stringy riffs, the harmonica breakdown, the groove and bluegrass energy – but it still feels experimental and groundbreaking. It also feels quite organic.
All the while, Andre and Big Boi meet in the middle, finding different ways to describe OutKast’s wild sonic evolution following the group’s funky debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmusik. “I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game/ To stimulate and activate the left and right brain/ Said, ‘Baby boy you’re only funky as your last cut/ Your focused on the past your ass will be a has what,’” Andre raps, and it explains why the group is so dynamic: they always insisted on testing new waters. “Rosa Parks” is the pinnacle of the OutKast universe. –Sheldon Pearce
01. “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)”
OutKast’s latter years have a sense of underlying irony to them. The same contrasting Southern pimp-meets-rapping extraterrestrial worldviews that gave their Georgia teachings and culture a worldly vibrancy became one of the things that tore it apart. The duo’s aesthetic has always been described as “futuristic,” yet its greatest track unintentionally jinxed itself with its own prescience. “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” had the misfortune of dropping soon before we were actually bombing Baghdad.
The War on Terrorism contributed to the angst that haunted the prior decade. And again, that’s ironic. “B.O.B.” and Radiohead’s Kid A were two of the millennium’s greatest artistic achievements. While Kid A preluded with dystopian angst, “B.O.B’s” fusillade of high-octane drum n’bass, the elated gospel coda, and a guitar solo evoking Princeian rawness and Hendrixian prophecies gave the decade an infectious zeal. It was years of pop culture absurdities, social strife, and personal triumph in the form of a kaleidoscopic epic.
We’d go from Rhapsody to iTunes, TRL to YouTube, and ‘90s bliss to a plugged-in world spinning too fast to grasp, but Andre 3000 and Big Boi were very aware that people are going to be people no matter how detached they get from their realities. Big Boi’s child, Bamboo, was on the way, so suddenly getting krunk at the club doesn’t matter as much. ‘Dre is still gazing at outer space as usual, but it isn’t like he’s not mindful of painful realities: “Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS/ Make a nigga wanna stay on tour for days.” “B.O.B.” is sonic a bacchanal anchored by the things that matter; that as quickly as things seem to spiral, there are still 365 (sometimes 366) 24-hour days in a year. –Brian Josephs