OutKast’s fifth album made space for hip hop to embrace its weirdness, and 15 years later it still sounds magnetic
“What is too far?”
At the beginning of the century, no one could touch OutKast. No one could get anywhere near. By springtime 2004, they had the most beloved song on the face of the planet, had shifted 10 million units of a double LP released only the previous autumn, and injected a rare dose of colour into a Grammy Awards so white that The White Stripes were odds-on favourite to sweep the board. OutKast overtook in the outside lane and took home Album of the Year instead. Their ubiquity began to outstrip just music. They got Punk’d. They were honoured by the NAACP. A Democratic presidential hopeful even ruminated on their breakup rumours in a campaign ad. Household name status was in the bag.
None of this was preordained. When starting out, the teen ATLiens André Benjamin and Antwuan Patton weren’t especially well regarded, locally or nationally. Their debut single, “Player’s Ball”, was first snuck out onto a compilation in 1993 as a novelty Christmas jam. Two years later, they were booed relentlessly at The Source’s annual jamboree for having the temerity to win Best Newcomer, effectively caught in the crossfire between an East-West rivalry that was about to reach its bloody apex. Watching back, Dré is unusually ineloquent in the face of the New York audience. He half-gulps his words, but the ones he forced out – “Da Souf got sum’ to say” – solidified into a mantra. The royal flush of shame they felt turned to defiance, catapulting them to claim their own identity, and from there, their greatness.
The duo fast cemented a reputation for doing things their own way: they rocked muumuus, turbans and wigs with impunity; they battled the overactive legal team of a Civil Rights hero all the way up to the Supreme Court; they let the stupefying sonic centrifuge that is “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” lead off 2000’s Stankonia (chart-wise it bombed, but burnished their credibility to no end). Yet on Stankonia they were still very much cut from a rap cloth, even with full-throated anti-American critique, breakbeat bombast, and singing owls woven in. A 39 track, 135-minute opus rooted in musical theatre was far out of convention for a next step.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below ended up a downpayment on a future they couldn’t sustain. Previously launched by their ineffable chemistry as MCs, overlapping and interlocking with a slick balance of world-weary caution and gallivanting abandon, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was, for all its deserved success, the visible end of that dynamic. Upon reaching the top of pop’s Mount Olympus, a cruel twist occurred. The whole world was finally listening, but OutKast ran out of things to say.
“Wretched excess, blessed excess, impressive excess”
The run-up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below signalled it was already set to be different. André 3000’s side of the record started life as a concept for a young Paris-bound romantic, which goes a long way to explaining the horniness and hammy skits. He would work without sleep for days, scoring string sections between four studios. Simultaneously, Big Boi was journeying to the deepest fathoms of his 808 obsession. By featuring Dungeon Family member Sleepy Brown’s velvet croon liberally throughout his new material, he was also bringing caramel to the crunch. The pair felt out new directions separately, but kept tabs on each other’s progress. Whatever disharmony lay below the surface, a workable compromise was made. They sidelined trusted production unit Organized Noise (something Rico Wade has still yet to fully get over), amassed 120 songs, then trimmed the fat. Well – some of it.
As infamously blunt critic Robert Christgau put it, SB/TLB is the dictionary definition of excess – but glorious excess at that. From the first modulated note that kicks off the armour-plated riot vehicle of “GhettoMusick” to Dré’s final meander through the corners of his nasty mind nearly two and half hours later, it felt like a Rosetta Stone for the preceding half-century of contemporary music. Considering the bloat, it moves at a surprisingly frantic pace: itchy be-bop and spasmodic Little Richard impressions on Dré’s half; explosive drum machine phonk and barrelling posse cuts on Big Boi’s. It doesn’t all gel: “My Favourite Things” fills a ‘Rogers & Hammerstein meets drum & bass’ brief that literally no one was asking after. But showboating in the end zone is what led to so many of the album’s genius moments, so it’s a necessary evil.
“From the first modulated note that kicks off the armour-plated riot vehicle of ‘GhettoMusick’... it felt like a Rosetta Stone for the preceding half-century of contemporary music”
Listening back with a neutral ear is tricky. The amount of long car journeys I spent with this in a beat Walkman, poring over the CD artwork (Big Boi’s reverse mink coat and Dré’s smoking pink gun staring back, contraband in their brilliance) means it’s akin to ASMR by this point. Some things do stand out fresh, mind. Though Speakerboxxx closes out with solid but admittedly unoriginal braggadocio, Big Boi sounds the more mature of the pair today. On “The Rooster” and “Unhappy” he continues to don the same elder statesman hat he wore on cuts like Stankonia’s “Toilet Tisha” and Aquemini’s “West Savannah”. They act as a component parts, openly setting Big Boi’s fears about the collateral damage done by sparring with the mother of his children against the memory of fissures in his own nuclear family life.
While Big Boi held down the fort, 3000 was off chasing his sonic wanderlust – and women. His libidinous, loquacious lounge crooner schtick took a lot of stick at the time, ‘pound-shop Prince’ being the spiciest zing. But you know what? Prince was in nowheresville at the time. If, like me, you were a chart-attuned 12-year-old Brit, the most resonant thing he had done in a decade was get sent up by Animaniacs. In his absence, Dré took the baton, converting the purple to pink for a younger generation.
Because yes, The Love Below was overblown, infantile, slapstick – all goo-goos, poo-poos, and misplaced panties – and I can see how that rubbed a lot of OutKast’s early adopters the wrong way. Dré is a canon-level rapper, yet his bars here went from delicately arranging the interior of a moment to frantically haring around the outside of it, plonking down garish works of art in the front yard. The preternaturally gifted street storytellers took their social capital and paid it forward into a wackier mode that some felt was just whack. But for all its folly, both sides of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below remain outrageous, contagious fun. And nowhere was that more evident than the incandescent pair of hits that truly crossed them over.
“Don’t try to fight the feeling.”
2003 was a golden year for pop. Three from Justin Timberlake, three from Dizzee Rascal, three from 50 Cent; The Strokes, The Darkness, The Rapture; “Like Glue”, “Stacy’s Mom”, “Crazy In Love”, “Move Your Feet”, “Milkshake”, “Maps” – the list goes on. Towards the tail end of the year, up popped two singles from the same group, which were really solo attempts in all but name. One was conjured up at a cookout; the other, a homage to the simplicity and impact of the Buzzcocks and Beatles. Suffice to say, they stuck around.
The statistics around “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” speak to their ubiquity. In the UK, “Hey Ya!” pulled off what was a vanishingly rare run at a time before downloads spiked the math: it charted, fell, rose steadily over Christmas and into the New Year, then peaked even higher; having first landed in November, it was still in the top 10 by the following March. Stateside, they stayed in gold and silver position on the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks, becoming only the fourth artist after The Beatles, Boyz II Men, and Nelly to self-replace at the top. “Hey Ya!” even bizarrely found its way onto the Latin Pop Airplay charts at one point.
Originally passed over by Arista as too risky a lead single, “Hey Ya!” was inducted into the hall of fame about as soon as it hit the shops. A clever sleight of hand (a cadence of two extra beats) gives the impression of the song being in a proggy 11/4 time signature, all the while jamming along at an impeccably fluid clip. Three Stacks glides between three hundred inflections, self-producing and playing all the instruments along the way – in fact, only two other people found their way on the entire track at all. One was Kevin Kendricks, synth go-to to Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour and Cameo’s towering mid-80s funk anthem “Word Up!”; the other was the assistant engineer, Rabeka Tuinei, who wound up one of the most famous “yeah”s in a pop history simply by virtue of being the only woman in the studio at the time.
The dual single tactic set in motion an unstoppable acceleration. They were on the front cover of rock magazines, tapped for Leno to Letterman, wryly syncing attire to bring their flamboyant yin/yang of street-corner hustler and thrift-shop rustler close to a complimentary, collegiate-themed whole. Their tag-team assault on the airwaves in the winter of 03-04 invariably struck at the right time to turn the ears of the Grammy’s judging committee (“Hey Ya!” especially would have been enough callback to the highwatermarks of the 60s to seal the deal with the dinosaurs on the panel). On February 8, 2004, as the duo still refused to budge from #1 and #2 in the US, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below became only the second hip hop record to take home Album of the Year, after Lauryn Hill had kicked the door down in 1998. When you think about the dominance of Bey, Ye, and Kendrick across the 2010s, that systematic shut-out is laughable. Then again, given what followed for both Ms Hill and the two dope boys, perhaps it’s for the best.
“Are y’all alive?”
While they were in the full exposure of mainstream glare, they faced questions at every turn about breaking up, as if being baited into it. The problem was that André 3000 didn’t exactly pat down the fire. He was mercurial in OutKast’s pomp, but an unspoken truth is that he was also increasingly self-absorbed, and selfish. Speakerboxxx includes frequent mentions of unity: Big Boi, forever the foil, huffs they’re “not clashing, not at all” on “The Way You Move” straight out the gate; later, he dedicates a whole half-verse on “Tomb Of The Boom” to insist that they’ve deliberately “split it down the middle so you can see both the visions”, then demanding that “people stop the madness, ’cos me and Dré be okay”. But the number of references to the present, future, or everlasting state of OutKast on The Love Below? Zero.
While still on the promo circuit for “Roses”, and with the “Prototype”/“GhettoMusick” double A-side to follow, Dré was visibly growing weary with it all. “If we weren’t doing music, I don’t know if we would still be friends,” he let slip to Blender during a cover story. “In a perfect world, this would be the last OutKast record.” He wasn’t wrong: 2006’s Idlewild, both the Prohibition-era musical drama and the soundtrack release of the same name, is something most fans gloss over, and with reason. The following year saw a flash of hope in the shape of a guest spot on UGK’s “Int’l Players Anthem”, still credited as a duo, and both at their world-beating best. But this was a false beacon of hope, one gasp of brilliant air from a project on life support.
“For a relatively young and exceedingly creative genre, big league hip hop was also pretty conservative in its accepted conventions... OutKast permanently stretched those boundaries”
For a duo that made such great hay from interplay, their decision to fade away felt unmistakably like a unilateral one made by 3000. He would pop up once or twice a year as a gun for hire on decade-defining projects (Channel Orange, Take Care, 4) and also, strangely enough, DJ Unk’s “Walk It Out”. Big Boi laid down one of the best straight-up rap albums of recent times in the much-delayed Sir Lucious Left Foot, but has since spent too much time splashing around in shallow indie-pop waters. When offers rolled in to hit the road again, you get the sense Big Boi twisted 3K’s arm with the promise of good ol’ times. He should have stayed listening to his gut. There’s an alternate timeline in which 2014’s comeback tour was a triumph; perhaps the same timeline in which Kelis’ shimmering “Millionaire” made it onto The Love Below as initially intended. But unfortunately we live in this one. Separate did, after all, prove better when there’s feelings involved.
The same commitment-phobia that so cooly played into Dré’s persona boomeranged on him during the first of their reunion dates, which happened to be a Coachella headline slot. They were unprepared, and it showed. The sunburnt crowd were there to bop around to “Hey Ya!”, not shoulder-roll to “Crumblin ’Erb”. Dré clocked the vibe of the sedate crowd, and switched off within an hour of a yearlong tour. I went to the sole London show that summer, where they were insultingly slotted underneath Bruno Mars at Wireless Festival. The response was completely dead. A friend teared up during the closing “The Whole World”, which felt positively funereal as they went through the motions. It was a brutal let-down.
“Play your part”
André 3000 and Big Boi were only 28 when they released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, with four other immense albums already under their belt from 94 to 00. That’s important to remember. They veered off-road, diverted by their most demanding project, but had already clocked considerable mileage by then. That the duo were a shapeshifting hybrid of Slick Rick and Bootsy Collins – “first pimps, then aliens, or some genies, or some shit”, in their own self-effacing words – was an integral part of the magnetism. But imagine gluing those two personalities together and forcing them to move in lockstep as one for a decade. Perhaps it was structurally unable to last.
In their lifetime, they more than played their part though. Scholars have written essays on the resultant cultural explosion from that unfiltered moment of Southern pride at The Source Awards. OutKlasses are now offered at a college in Savannah, GA. You don’t have to look far to see their influence on today’s class of stars: Future, Rico Wade’s cousin, used to loiter around the Dungeon as a starstruck teen, gleaning all that he could; Janelle Monáe, first sired by Big Boi, has since stepped into the Prince-shaped shoes that Dré vacated; Young Thug has taken their musical whimsicality and outré fashion into another realm entirely.
OutKast’s imperial phase only spanned a few years, but they were a cultural force to behold in that time. As well as leaving behind a berth of majestic music, they opened up space for individuals in and indeed beyond the rap game to colour boldly outside the lines. For a relatively young and exceedingly creative genre, big league hip hop was also pretty conservative in its accepted conventions in the 90s and early 00s. OutKast permanently stretched those boundaries, showing eccentricity should be cherished. Nowhere was that done more gleefully than on their flawed, frantic yet furiously fun final masterpiece.