How do you remain an outcast when the rest of the hip-hop nation has finally learned where you live? If you're Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, you head to "The center of the earth/Seven light years below sea level," a realm known as Stankonia (La Face/Arista), "a place from which all funky things come." For most of the Nineties, the duo lounged in a South that media power brokers didn't yet know to call Dirty, their name an inventive way to own the outsider status most black artists couldn't shake if they wanted to. The pair's dyed hair and silly pants may have stood out, but their early herb-rolling and Cadillac-macking rhymes indicated that perhaps the biggest difference musically between OutKast and Snoop Dogg had less to do with any imagined pariah status than with the number of CDs sold.
But with each successive record, OutKast inched closer to innovation--and grew weirder. Andre raised eyebrows with an increasingly flamboyant wardrobe and by occasionally singing, sometimes in a quite unmanly falsetto. Big Boi still loved the herb and the Caddies, but he flourished a humorous self-awareness unbecoming to a steely-hearted gangsta while fiercely defending Andre's right to be as freaky as he wanted to be. By 1998's Aquemini, OutKast had fans and critics citing the funky props of "Rosa Parks" as evidence that, like Curtis Mayfield or Public Enemy, OutKast not only moved your mind while they moved your body, but that each seemingly disparate element complemented the other--not unlike the synergy achieved by the wonder-twin personalities of Andre and Big Boi themselves.
They're Old School playas who admit that they "luv deez hoez." They're sensitive descendents of Speech who prove that Southern consciousness needn't be stymied by arrested development. They're firebrands accepting the torch from Chuck D to describe a country in chaos. They're demented aliens pledging fealty to George Clinton, determined to convince Earth's inhabitants to get in touch with their inner freak-nasty. They're all of the above. In the face of mass-media attempts to pigeonhole what black men can look and talk and sound like, the duo displays infinite facets of black manhood--the same feat that the lumbering Wu-Tang Clan has needed a dozen-plus members to demonstrate. But the South ain't the secret hideout it used to be--even Def Jam has opened a Southern franchise. And so, abetted by their production team, Organized Noize, the two have now set out from Atlanta in a thousand different directions to discover that the world they're leaving behind is burning--and they can smell the smoke.
And they kind of dig that stanky whiff they're taking in. "Don't everybody like the smell of gasoline?" Andre bellows in Stankonia's opening track, "Gasoline Dreams." And from there the record stinks up the dance floor with liquor and sweat, ammonia sticks and dope, love juice and Hawaiian Silky--a reminder that funk was a smell way before it was a sound. Rapid-fire rhymes elevate every track, from Big Boi's densely meaningful couplet, "Officer/Get off me, sir," to the fingernail-deep "I'll Call Before I Come," where Big Boi and Andre drop the funny, knowing smirk: "No, I don't want to see your thong/I kinda like them old school cute regular drawers/And will pause for your cause."
None of which prepares you for "Ms. Jackson," a complicated open letter to their baby's grandma. An almost-cheesily sung "I am for real" chorus grounds genuine remorse and frustration as OutKast recounts the dissolution of both the romantic relationship between the child's father and mother, and the friendship between the father and the mother's mother: "She had fish fries and cookouts for my child's birthday/I ain't invited." Compare such soulful ruminations to Eminem's recent dedication to his own litigious mama "Kill You" ("Bitch I'm-a kill you") for an industry check-in. Or, for that matter, compare Will Smith's "Just the Two of Us," where mom is all but airbrushed out of the family photo album.
That's not to say there are no nods to form here. As Andre says, "She said she thought hip hop was only guns and alcohol/I said, 'Oh hell no' but yet it's that too." Stankonia includes several objectification recitations, like the giddily believable "We Luv Deez Hoez" and the flossing player's anthem "Snappin' and Trappin'." For the most part, Andre sits out these tracks, leaving Big Boi to hone his thug-with-a-heart persona and share the mic with other Dirty South MCs.
Instead, Andre brings in former lover Erykah Badu, who delivers a typically exquisite guest shot on the junglistically smoove "Humble Mumble," which eases into position immediately after Big Boi has bumped his "hoez." Stankonia is built on such juxtapositions, as apparently incongruous tracks turn out to interlock seamlessly. The P-Funk squiggle of "I'll Call Before I Come" oozes into the slab-pounding "B.O.B.," a clarion booty call-cum-air-raid siren disguised as an Armageddon rant (bombs over Baghdad, yeah, sure) stuffed into a dance track tighter than the thong of Sisqo's wettest dreams. "Don't even hang/Unless you plan to hit something" the duo broadcast over a hyper breakbeat that suggests Organized Noize have been frequenting clubs that deal in beats more progressive than standard-issue booty bass. With a higher bpm than a Photek 12-inch--and sounding harder, to boot--the beat is, for once, faster than the MC's motormouthed rhymes. Not that Big Boi or Andre can't keep up. "Did you ever think a pimp rock a microphone/Like this boy?" Big Boi asks. Andre tosses his gauntlet with even chillier defiance: "When I leave there/Better be a household name."
"B.O.B." is so irresistibly heavy a dance groove it has already detonated: The track was targeted for saturation status on radio and video even prior to the CD's release. And just as Stankonia's lyrics demonstrate Dre and Big Boi's determination to cram as much of the black experience into a rhyme as possible, "B.O.B." demonstrates Organized Konfusion's determination to expand the parameters of their sound, swallowing up whole electronic subgenres and calling the results hip hop. With their help, Dre and Big Boi have set up a nation of outcasts who hide out at the center of things--at the center of the Earth, at the center of the charts, at the center of attention. And they still think they're outcasts? Do they contradict themselves? Well, day-um, dawg--they contain multitudes.