Before Antwan Patton and André Benjamin graduated high school, Southern hip-hop wasn’t cool. While groups like Geto Boys in Houston had seen moderate commercial success in the late 80s and early 90s for the most part airwaves and cassette players were overpowered by what was coming from the coasts. Patton’s and Benjamin’s ears were open to the music drifting down from the Northeast and Northwest, as well as what was playing closer to home in Atlanta when they began sporting their titles as Big Boi and Andre 3000, graduated high school, and formed Outkast in 1992.
1992 was also the year that UGK, a group from Port Arthur, Texas, released their commercial debut Too Hard To Swallow. As a gangster rap album that quintessentially and flagrantly flaunts guns, drugs, and the sexualization of women, this was an abrasive attempt by Southern rappers to make a name for themselves. Outkast’s 1994 release Southernplayalisticadalicmusik, also addressed sexuality, violence, and inner city life. The album was influenced by Andre and Big Boi’s experience growing up in Atlanta and by other musical movements. The track “Git Up, Git Out” is their ode to productivity, which discusses avoiding fulfilling stereotypes and prescribed destinies that Black men in their communities faced. This sort of message resonates with music from groups like A Tribe Called Quest, a New York crew who self-described their work as “positive.” Their track “Excursions” explains, “You gotta be a winner all the time/Can’t fall prey to a hip hop crime”. Southernplayalisticadalicmusik allowed Outkast to craft a sharp Southern voice. Big Boi and Andre delivered unabashed, subversively goofy lyricism in the context of hardcore hip hop beats: pitting himself against the critics from the East and West Coasts on the album’s title track, Andre asserts “like collard greens and whole eggs I got soul/that’s something you ain’t got.” The album went platinum.
Outkast’s niche in hip-hop soon expanded beyond its position as a Southern vanguard of the genre. Big Boi and Andre made themselves a sensation of the present by talking about the future. The song “Millennium” off their second album, ATLiens, is a personal, disillusioned, and concerned account of the turn of the century. The track “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” from the 2000 album, Stankonia, unintentionally predicts the Iraq War (though the song was probably intended to reference the First Gulf War) three years before it occurs. The track is heart racing at 155 bpm and revolutionary in its successful mesh of rock guitar, soulful vocal hooks, techo blipping, and pounding drum machines. Stankonia remains one of the most critically acclaimed albums in hip-hop.
However, Big Boi and Andre have never taken themselves too seriously. “So Fresh, So Clean,” a song off Stankonia, pairs a Southern gangster rap beat with surreal nonsensical lyrics, poking fun at the genre’s excessive bravado. Outkast’s frontmen are unafraid and perhaps proud of their failure to conform to any image that exists within the genre—evidenced in André’s flamboyant style when donning wide rimmed fedoras or head dresses, bow ties or pocket squares. This attitude was the key to their ubiquitous praise in the early 2000s (and six Grammys) before the duo split apart to pursue solo careers in 2007. Their middling approach to hip-hop allowed their music to span genre. It became accessible to a wider audience: today you can find their later albums on the shelves of Urban Outfitters.
Recently Outkast announced they will be playing 40 festivals later this year to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Andre and Big Boi are also reportedly releasing solo albums before festival season begins.
This summer, the duo will be playing alongside modern artists, who arguably owe a lot to them. At Governor’s Ball in New York City, attendees will not only hear from Outkast, but also Tyler the Creator, a rapper whose popular success and persona rely on the irony of his delivery and lyricism. Tyler is a rapper who makes beats and writes lyrics that are so painfully vapid they find meaning. His tendency is to taut surrealism and violence to the brink of listenability. In his hit, “Yonkers,” he boasts of threesomes with triceratopses and “swallowing cinnamon” over a beat that sounds halfway like nails on a chalkboard. But something about the track’s violent instability keeps us interested. Tyler, like Outkast, relies on hip-hop as a medium that is inherently taken seriously to deliver ironic messages, ones that challenge our expectations as listeners of the genre.
At Coachella Outkast will be playing with Kendrick Lamar, whose 2012 release Good Kid m.A.A.d city is a commentary on gang culture in Compton, California. Outkast’s influence on Kendrick is audible. Kendrick’s nasally, alien-like vocals in “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” mirror the futuristic spoken word flow found on several tracks in Outkast’s 1997 release Aquemeni. But on a deeper level, Kendrick, like Outkast, is attacking the issues facing his inner city community by mocking the personalities that perpetuate them. Kendrick’s “Backseat Freestyle” and Outkast’s “We Luv Deez Hoez” both serve as sarcastic commentaries on hypersexualization in hip hop culture.
Outkast’s return to the realm of hip-hop could not come at a more appropriate time. Hip-hop artists are more than ever willing to bring a conscious sense of humor into their music and are less concerned with adopting the genre’s traditional aesthetics. Andre may not have been 1000 years ahead of his time, but 10 seems like a good estimate.