Counterbalance: Outkast’s ‘Stankonia’

Ain't nobody as dope as the 124th most acclaimed album of all time, so fresh and so clean. It loves it when you stare at it. A hip-hop game changer is this week's Counterbalance. Break!

Mendelsohn: While perusing the Great List one day I happened to notice Outkast’s Stankonia sitting respectably in the back half of the top 200. That was a couple of months ago — when I went to check the list again today (after the recent update), Stankonia had jumped all the way up to number 124. That’s a huge jump in terms of the Great List, meaning the full effects of the “Best Of 2000s” lists are now being felt throughout the Critical Industrial Complex as they reevaluate the last decade. It had been nearly 15 years since I’d listened to this record but I had some fond memories of a couple of the songs, namely the ones about apologizing to Ms. Jackson and practicing good hygiene in order to stay fresh and clean.

My first couple of times through the record and I was sure I had made a mistake. Aside from “B.O.B”, “Ms. Jackson”, and “So Fresh, So Clean”, I wasn’t hearing anything I liked. And that was strange. Aside from my nostalgia factor, this record is beloved by the Criterati. Stankonia vaulted almost all the way into the top 100. So why the surge? What is it about two rappers from the ATL, Andre 3000 and Big Boi, that could capture the imaginations of the music listening public at large?

I had to rethink my approach. That’s when it hit me. This isn’t so much a hip-hop record as it is an eccentric synthesizing of the past 40 years of popular music — starting with James Brown and ending with the pop and glitch of late 1990s/early 2000s electronic music. Outkast are more Prince and the Revolution than they are Dr. Dre and N.W.A. After that, it wasn’t hard to see why this album is pushing its way toward the upper reaches of the Great List. Yes, there is some truly awful stuff on this record, but if you can look past the skits, there isn’t a weak spot to be found (find me one, I dare you). What do you think, Klinger? Is the critical reevaluation of this record warranted?

Klinger: Is it a reevaluation, or just a consistently growing groundswell of support? Because it seems to me like Stankonia comes across like some kind of force of nature, an album that works hard over the course of its 70-plus minutes to demonstrate a dizzying breadth of skills. I hadn’t really spent that much time with Stankonia over the years, although I’m pretty sure I’ve had it lying around here somewhere (I know I picked up Aquemini at some point and I recall largely enjoying its hazed-out grooviness), but as I’ve been listening to it more intently I keep wanting to compare it to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Is that odd? Maybe not, since both albums seem compelled to move frantically from sound to sound and mood to mood.

Also, both albums are especially good when they make the effort to juxtapose harder grooves with serious subjects. Songs like “Gasoline Dreams” and “Toilet Tisha” (which probably could have done with a rethink title-wise) are gripping in their depictions of the various harsh realities we count on hip-hop for. Which gets me to thinking that I should probably also be comparing Stankonia to Sign o’ the Times. And while I’m looking at charts and graphs, I should also point out that both of the albums I’m comparing Stankonia to have actually dropped slightly on the Great List. Could this mean that we’re seeing some sort of generational shift, as hip-hop increasingly becomes the lingua franca among pop aficionados?

Mendelsohn: That generational shift you speak of is finally happening. Anyone under the age of 35 has never known music without the influence of hip-hop. As more and more of those people enter the critical circle, hip-hop — now a respected art form and a touchstone that nearly everyone can understand — will continue to gain in influence. So maybe reevaluation is the wrong word, as this record was nearly universally loved upon its release. And while I wouldn’t call Stankonia strictly a hip-hop record, it does blur the lines between genres that it almost defies categorization. That line blurring helped Outkast get Stankonia through the old guard while the clear hip-hop overtones have helped it stay relevant over the intervening years.

I completely agree with your assessment in comparing it to Prince’s Sign o’ the Times. I’m not disagreeing with your comparison to Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life; it’s a valid comparison, but I think Outkast owes more to the ’80s pop model that Prince sculpted than they do to Wonder’s eclectic R&B vision. And now I’m completely at a loss because I’m a little put off by your effusiveness in regard to this record. I had expected more of a fight. Have I miscalculated the appeal of this record with you (and apparently everyone else)?

Klinger: Oh, I’m full of surprises, Mendelsohn. I will say that I don’t foresee myself spending a ton of time listening to this album once our week has come to an end, but I have been struck by how strong the hooks are throughout this album. I read that Andre 3000 and Big Boi spent more time listening to rock and/or roll during the making of Stankonia, and that comes through in the high-energy approach. And again, that’s a distinct departure from their earlier, stonier endeavors.

As you’d expect from an album of this length, there are a few numbers that probably wouldn’t have made the cut (I’m looking at you “Snappin’ and Trappin'”, although I could see why people under a different set of influences might disagree). But what do I know — I’m also of the opinion that the little interstitial breaks (BREAK!) actually work fine here, serving to underscore the themes of the record without dragging on into absurdity like so many “skits” that turn up on hip-hop albums. You, though, are on record as being firmly opposed to hip-hop skits in just about any form. Outside of Kendrick Lamar, I don’t think we’ve covered a hip-hop album yet where you didn’t cast aspersions on these little bitty-bits. I must ask: do you feel that there’s ever a time when sort of thing is warranted?

Mendelsohn: Maybe I’m just a purist. All I want is the music. I don’t need any of that funny business. If musicians want to try their hand at comedy, I’m all for it — do some standup (they already have the microphones), release a record full of jokes. Don’t try to squeeze in giggles where they don’t belong. Have something witty to say? Work it into a song. My biggest problem with skits in general is that they do little to advance the record — the two biggest offenders we’ve covered were De La Soul and Dr. Dre. I would characterize the interstitial bits on Kendrick Lamar’s record as skit but more as a piece of the over arching story that comprised Good Kid M.A.A.D. City.

But if I had to pick one album to leave the skits fully intact, it would be Stankonia. As you noted, the material is short and for the most part works with the flow of the record, usually setting the stage for the next song. And if the only thing I’m complaining about are the 20-second interstitials on this record, then that should probably tell you something.

As for “Snappin’ and Trappin’”, I’m not inclined to disagree with you, it isn’t the song I wait for on this record, but it serves a purpose — letting Outkast — or more specifically Big Boi —show off their true hip-hop bonafides. Interestingly, “Snappin’ and Trappin’” is one of the few songs that does not feature Andre 3000. There is a great chemistry between Andre and Big Boi that helped balance out Outkast’s street cred with their ever-evolving reinvention of pop music. By all accounts, Big Boi leads the charge for the traditional aspects of hip-hop while Andre contributes a bit more flair. The dichotomy of their opposing styles works incredibly well on this record as I imagine some sort of Lennon/McCartney partnership that pushed these two Southern rappers to elevate their game, not just for each other, but to bring Southern hip-hop into the realm of critical acclaim that had been dominated by the East and West Coasts.

Klinger: And maybe that idea of dichotomy is what makes Outkast so appealing to critics. We’ve talked about the idea of the two complementary forces, the Dionysus and Apollo archetype, who end up creating something bigger when we discussed Jagger/Richards, Page/Plant, and Morrissey/Marr. (Maybe we should have talked about it with Henley/Frey, but honestly, why bother?) I have a feeling that the tensions in the 3000/Boi partnership became apparent in the aftermath of the “Hey Ya” juggernaut, and Big Boi was reluctant to become the Oates/Messina/Ridgeley half of the group.

Creative partnerships can be volatile (you and I have certainly thrown enough barstools at each other over the years). But the idea that critics are continuing to show their admiration for hip-hop as a genre, with a heritage and a legacy that can be celebrated in the same way that rock ‘n’ roll is, has me thinking that it’s possible — just quite possibly possible — that the canon as we now know it, the one we now see as the Great List, is in for a few surprises in the coming years.