Hiding in Plain Sight

The Curious Legacy of Outkast

by Raj Gopal

16 March 2017

When it comes to hip-hop, everyone remembers who kicked down the front door -- but no one remembers who opened the windows.
 

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran 27 July 2015. We are re-running some of our best music features this week during SXSW.

It was pandemonium on the grassy field, a sea of thousands writhing and thrashing as if the world was coming to an end. It was Governor’s Ball 2014, and Outkast had just kicked off their 20th-anniversary show with “B.O.B.”, a blistering drumn’n’bass-gospel-rave-rap attack unlike anything that’s come before or since. The track should come with an advisory warning: May Cause Listeners to Lose Their Heads and Shed Two Gallons of Sweat.

A comedown was inevitable after an opener like “B.O.B.” But as Outkast settled into their set, I noticed something funny; during deeper cuts like “ATLiens” and “Hootie Hoo”, the younger pockets of the crowd would begin shuffling and checking their phones, the hallmarks of people who aren’t totally feeling it. This continued throughout Outkast’s eclectic set—energy constantly shifted like tides, as different pockets of the crowd perked up or simmered down depending on the flavor, tempo, and age of the song being played.

As I danced hard enough to make my fellow concertgoers nervous and uncomfortable, I wondered how Outkast was doing this. How had they brought teenage white girls and middle-aged black men to the same place, for a shared purpose? How could they provoke such wildly varying reactions within a single crowd? And what did this say about the legacy and future of Outkast?

* * *

Hip-hop today is borderless. New York rappers crib from Houston. Jamaican dancehall has wormed its way into chart-topping hits. There’s a guy in Calcutta remixing a Gucci Mane song right now. At the center of these swirling trade winds sits Atlanta, which has come to define the mainstream (Mike WiLL Made It, TI, Lil Jon), and the vanguard (iLoveMakonnen, Young Thug, Migos).

Back in 1995, however, hip-hop was a closed system guarded by the East and West Coast, and a battle raged over which side truly represented the culture. For the gatekeepers on the coasts, Southern rap didn’t even belong in the conversation; they considered it booty music made by backwoods posers. So, when two drawling 19-year-olds from Atlanta won Best New Rap Group at the Source Awards in 1995, the New York crowd positively revolted, throwing heckles and curses at the group.

Those two Southern boys were Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin, and with their platinum-selling debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Outkast were the first Southern group to break the coastal stranglehold on hip-hop. Like the Beatles sparking the British Invasion, Outkast put Atlanta on the map and cracked the door for every Southern rapper that would follow. That debut is one of many reasons why Outkast is probably the most important hip-hop group since NWA.

They were just getting started. Over their next five albums, Outkast continuously pushed themselves into foreign territory, revolutionizing what mainstream hip-hop could sound like with each succeeding album. The divide between gangsta and conscious rap was a false choice; every perspective and subject matter was worthwhile to Outkast. On Aquemini alone, they talk about child rearing, drug dealing, racial politics, technophobia, gypsies, aliens, and the apocalypse. They could be jokesters, realists, gangstas, and family men all at once.

That eclecticism extended to the music. Outkast used live instrumentation to fuse hip-hop with funk, gospel, rock, rave, ragtime, and anything else they could get their hands on. They were instrumental in expanding hip-hop’s palette, and at their best, on songs like “SpottieOttieDopalicious” and “B.O.B.”, they blew apart the very idea of distinct genres.

And with 2003’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Outkast helped usher hip-hop into the mainstream. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the first (and last) hip-hop album to permeate seemingly every corner of American culture, sitting high on critics’ year-end lists, winning over the establishment with a Grammy for Album of the year, and selling over 11 million units. To this day it stands as the best-selling hip-hop album of all time.

Perhaps most importantly, Outkast popularized slang words we now take for grantedlike crunk and skeet. Life in the 21st century would be an unbearable grind without the majesty of skeet.

Groups like Run-DMC and NWA may have laid the foundation for today’s hip-hop, but no group covered more ground or had a wider influence than Outkast. Their influence can be heard in Kendrick Lamar’s thematic scope, Big KRIT’s defiant southernness, Lil Wayne’s cosmic weirdness, and Drake’s earnest crooning. From the granular issues of what it can sound like and be about, to the global issues of where it can be made and who it can sell to, Outkast courses through the veins of hip-hop in America.

* * *

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that Outkast’s star has begun to fade.

Sure, critics still fawn over the group, but since when have critics reflected the tastes of the common man? In the eyes of many, Outkast have gradually been reduced to their singles—ironically, a group with one of the deepest catalogs in music has become Those Guys That Did “Hey Ya!”. If Spotify and YouTube plays are any indication, young people listening to early-‘00s rap now prefer Dr. Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent to Outkast. And besides constant shout-outs from Big KRIT, the hip-hop community doesn’t speak of Outkast in the [hushed tones used for other all-time greats. List makers usually, and I’d say unfairly, put them below groups like Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and NWA. Put simply, Antwan and Andre are legends hiding in plain sight.

So why hasn’t Outkast been carved into the face of hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore?

Part of the problem is that, unlike so many others, they can’t be defined by one watershed moment. Public Enemy and NWA got caught in a crucible of racial unrest. The Wu-Tang Clan’s debut felt like a punch to the face. Biggie and 2Pac were martyrs taken too soon. Vanilla Ice set white rappers back ten years.

Outkast’s accomplishments, however, were less tangible. Their constant reinvention didn’t make for easy narratives, and they avoided attention-grabbing beefs and polemics, preferring to expand frontiers rather than vanquish enemies. Everyone remembers who kicked down the front door. No one remembers who opened the windows.

If anything, “Hey Ya!” was their Big Moment. But the song was an anomaly, totally disconnected from the sound and history of the group. It cleaved their fanbase in two—the hip-hop fans surprised by Outkast’s move into bar mitzvah music, and the new fans uninterested in the group’s earlier work. Yes, everyone liked Outkast, but with different fans embracing different parts of their catalog, a common legacy couldn’t crystallize.

This gets to the deeper issue of how artistic legacies form.. Musicians endure either by embodying a bygone era or inspiring modern imitations. Despite their accomplishments, Outkast evolved so frequently and hung around so long that they don’t feel emblematic of one time or style—not in the same way that artists like 2Pac or Run-DMC evoke very specific moments in hip-hop. In some ways, Outkast was undone by their own longevity and eclecticism.

Although they’ve influenced dozens of artists at a thematic and historic level, direct imitations of Outkast have been rare. Even songs that extensively sample the group, like J. Cole’s “Land of the Snakes” or Big K.R.I.T.’s “R4 Theme Song”, don’t really try to match Outkast’s ambitions. Not that following the ATLiens is easy. How would you even go about imitating the elusive, contradictory point of space that Outkast occupied? Is it any surprise that music today doesn’t sound like the bluegrass rap of “Rosa Parks”, the Bridal Chorus-sampling ode to baby mama’s mamas of “Ms. Jackson”, or the genre-collage insanity of “B.O.B.”? Songs like these blend wildly different eras, perspectives, and genres to make something singular. They can’t be nailed down to a tangible time or place—they sound like they were made in the year 3000, in Stankonia. For better or worse, Outkast’s music just sounds like… Outkast.

* * *

Because of these issues, Outkast’s legacy has become a strange kind of divergent, nebulous popularity, and that legacy has helped to drive Big Boi and Andre further apart.

After Outkast split, Andre seemed to be cutting a new path for himself musically, dropping a string of outstanding guest verses in 2007 and giving fans hope for a solo release. But the guest verses eventually slowed to a trickle as Andre fished for inspiration in clothing design, Cartoon Network shows, acting, Gillette commercials—pretty much everything but rap.

There are probably a lot of reasons for Andre’s slowdown—a depletion of ideas, waning interest in hip-hop, old age in rap years—but Outkast’s legacy has also been a factor. Every time Andre releases a verse, the Internet content mill goes into overdrive, endlessly comparing the verse to his Outkast peak and speculating when the group’s next album may come out. For a man who’s always been leery of the limelight, that degree of attention must surely be paralyzing. It has also served as a constant reminder that anything he releases could besmirch Outkast’s spotless record. As any artist will tell you, high expectations and a fear of failure can strangle creativity..

And so, today, the prospect of an Andre solo album seems less likely with each passing year. His increasingly ambivalent interviews, the “SOLD OUT” tag he wore during the reunion shows—these are not the signs of someone raring to return to the studio. They’re the street signs at an artistic crossroads. Hell, after eight years of waffling, things are looking more like an artistic roundabout. It’s frustrating for fans, but Andre has never followed the beaten path. All we can do now is wait for him to make a turn.

**

Big Boi has often been given short shrift as the less-talented member of the group—the Art Garfunkel to Andre’s Paul Simon. The truth is that Big Boi was just as important as Andre. His focus, ear for hooks, and experimental-but-restrained production style allowed Outkast to blast into space without drifting out of orbit. Unfortunately for Big Boi, discipline doesn’t attract the spotlight. 

The end of Outkast, then, was a new beginning for Big Boi, a chance to step out of Andre’s shadow and into the spotlight. With his 2010 solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, he made the most of that chance, crafting an album full of bouncy, layered beats, infectious hooks, and innovative ideas. The album sounds like a smoke session in a candy-colored strip club, and that’s all because of Big’s quicksilver flow and steady hand in the studio.

But things had changed since Outkast’s last work. Southern rap had drifted from funk and soul towards trap and EDM. Dwindling sales had made record labels risk-averse. In that climate, and without Andre’s flamboyant commercial appeal by his side, Big Boi’s experimental funk simply wasn’t a sure bet for Jive Records. So, just a few years after ruling the world as half of Outkast, Big Boi found himself shunted to the side by Jive, who blocked the album’s release for two years and eventually allowed him to quietly release it through Def Jam. 

The result: despite universal acclaim, a tracklist full of bangers, and a hilarious album title, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty only sold 175,000 copies in 2010. To put that in perspective, the album placed #183 on 2010’s Billboard Top 200, selling fewer copies than timeless classics like Kidz Bop 17 and the Crazy Heart soundtrack. His next effort, the more experimental and confessional Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, sold even fewer copies despite critical acclaim.

In today’s musical landscape, Antwan Patton has become a man without a country—too unconventional to fit into the Southern hip-hop scene he helped establish, still overlooked compared to Andre, and unable to match Outkast’s commercial success by himself. But Big Boi seems content to soldier on, with or without Andre. Forever pimpin’, never slippin’—Big’s been doing it for the last 20 years.

* * *

After more than two decades in music, Outkast has become a host of contradictions. They’re incredibly influential, but their influence was too abstract and their work was too unique to leave visible fingerprints on contemporary music. Their versatility and longevity won them a huge fanbase, but that versatility made it difficult for a legacy to crystalize. It’s all come together to make Outkast is easy to like but hard to agree upon. 

Because of this legacy, each has gotten what the other worked for: Big Boi, ever the crowd pleaser, keeps working while being unjustly ignored by casual fans. And Andre, who’s done his best to avoid mainstream tastes and attention, now finds himself frozen in the spotlight. As they’ve moved in opposite directions, the legacy of Outkast has become both a gift and a curse for Andre and Big Boi—something they can fall back on but never quite live up to.

In many ways, 2014’s reunion tour felt like the meeting point of all these contradictions: a homecoming on stage despite enduring discord in the studio; a reminder of their relevancy and a hint of their waning connection to the present; a reunion, and ultimately, a swan song. Because as much as Big and Dre claim that the spirit of Outkast never dies, and that a new album may come someday, I can’t shake the feeling that this was the end.

Part of me sees the beauty in Outkast staying gone. By stopping when they did, Big and Dre got the rare chance to end their story on their own terms. They’re rightfully protective of that closure.

But I miss them all the same. I miss their thoughtful joy, their hopeful melancholy, their compassionate anger, their poetic pimping. Part of me wishes the story could go on.

* * *

Andre and Big Boi capped their Governor’s Ball set with “The Whole World”, a weird song any way you slice it. It’s a rap-waltz with a 6/8 time signature, a sing-along chorus, a fiery Killer Mike verse, and a venomous attack on the voyeurism of fandom. That contradiction—biting cynicism under a sheen of joy—made “The Whole World” an especially odd choice as a closer for a reunion concert.

Up on stage, Big Boi basked in the energy for one last moment, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Then, two stagehands carried a large costume trunk on stage with business-like efficiency. They opened the trunk, and without a word or a moment’s hesitation, Andre climbed inside, folded his arms, and froze still, his face completely blank.  The stage crew continued to work as if this was all completely ordinary.

But this gesture felt like something out of The Twilight Zoneas if Andre 3000 was a puppet that had magically become animate for one performance, and now his puppet-master-roadies were casually returning him to his box. It was the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen. I had slipped into a dimension where metaphors became reality, where the personas of Andre 3000 and Big Boi were puppets perennially trapped in suspended animation, being made to play-act as a happy, united group.

It felt like a hallucination, and with all the loose substances and vapors wafting around the festival, it very well might have been. No one in the crowd seemed to notice this carnival of absurdity. I haven’t seen any press coverage about it. But it’s the one memory from the concert that remains clear in my head.

As the crowd shuffled off into the hot, suddenly quiet night, the stagehands closed Andre’s trunk and carried him off stage. I stood on my toes and craned my neck to catch one last glimpse, the music still ringing in my ears.

But Outkast was gone.

Raj Gopal is a writer based in New York. He has edited and written work for the Jazz & Grooves music blog, the Pennsylvania Punch Bowl Humor Magazine, AGD Impact Magazine, and the book A Drive to Excellence. Follow him on Twitter @RGopal01.

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