Happy 15th Anniversary to OutKasts Stankonia, originally released October 31, 2000.
I have a confession to make, in the interest of full disclosure. And I suspect this wont be the most popular of admissions. It may even prompt some music critics heads to spin95/100 Metacritic score be damnedand a few of my fellow soulheads eyes to roll. OK, youre not gonna like it, but here goes.
Stankonia is not my favorite OutKast album.
ATLiens, the duos 1996 sophomore effort, is.
Its not my second favorite. That would be their 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
Oh, and its not my third favorite: 1998s Aquemini.
Hell, its not even my fourth favorite (2003s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), albeit by the very slimmest of margins.
Alright, Ill stop here. Stankonia is my fifth favorite OutKast album. With apologies to the Idlewild Soundtrack.
But heres the thing. While Ive personally never considered Stankonia to be as unequivocally brilliant as the duos first three albums, its still an incredible album in my book. A long player that I obviously love enough to devote space to in this column, that is. But my subjective preferences within OutKasts back catalog are of secondary importance here.
More notably, the broader implication is that André “André 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Pattons ridiculously prolific run of albums from 1994 to 2006 yielded one of the greatest recorded repertoires in the history of hip-hop. Or the history of popular music, for that matter. Big Boi cogently summed up his groups legacy when he declared to XXL magazine that: We make timeless classics, whether its Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, ATLiens, Aquemini, Stankonia or whatever it is. We put it out, and that shit still stands the test of time. You can pop that shit in right now and still knock it. We take pride in doing that. Theres no expiration date with our music.
Before we revisit Stankonias arrival on the final day of October back in 2000, however, lets briefly rewind by another five years to August 3, 1995. This was the day that The Source held its annual awards ceremony at New York Citys Madison Square Garden, an event that has since become infamous in the lore of hip-hops ill-fated, but relatively short-lived East Coast versus West Coast feud of the mid-90s. Many of us can easily recall the tension-filled energy of the show, as we conjure visions of Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight and Bad Boy Records founder Sean Puffy Combs grandstanding on stage, while exchanging off-handed jabs directed toward each others reputations and respective stomping grounds.
One moment from that evening that you may not remember as vividly is what happened to OutKast when they were named Best New Artist, an honor they rightfully deserved based on the southern-fried, Atlanta-flavored genius of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Upon ascending to the podium to accept their award, and with the show already devolving into the absurd, André and Big Boi were welcomed by a cacophony of boos and hisses from the restless audience. To which André confidently replied the south got something to say and exited stage left. The five years that followed proved that his declaration was spot-on, as the South did indeed rise to assume a more prominent role in the traditionally bicoastal hip-hop landscape, as labels like No Limit, Cash Money and Suave House redefined and diversified the sound of southern rap. And as history has proven, OutKast has definitely had the last laugh.
Following the success of their first three LPs, OutKast did not lack for momentum, as they gazed forward to the next phase of their career. But André and Big Boi were restless, itching to launch their proven penchant for sonic adventurism into hyper-space territory. Granted, each previous album had exemplified the pairs ability to evolve their sound and style in provocative yet accessible ways. But though their first three long players possessed their own sonic nuances, the trilogy of Southernplayalistic, ATLiens and Aquemini also contained discernible echoes of the signature, mellifluously melodic Organized Noize-blessed aesthetic that had come to define OutKasts funkdafied sound.
Stubbornly refusing to rest on their artistic laurels, OutKast set out to record their fourth album in the spring of 1999, with the vision of crafting an idiosyncratically adventurous album that defied easy classification and challenged the tried-and-true blueprint that they themselves had established. A year earlier, OutKast purchased Bobby Browns Atlanta-based Bosstown Studioswhere they had cut their first vocals together for a remix of TLCs 1992 single What About Your Friends and subsequently recorded parts of all three of their previous albumsand rebranded it as Stankonia Studios.
Having their own recording homebase allowed the group newfound freedom to spread their musical legs and experiment with different sounds, without having to punch the clock on rented studio space. As a result, the duo expanded way beyond the more intuitive reference points, by allegedly abstaining from listening to hip-hop during the recording sessions, and instead drawing inspiration from funk and rock acts like Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince and Jimi Hendrix, among others. As André later explained to Vibe, There are people who feel like what were doing is too far from hip-hop. Some people feel like if its not just a kick and a snare, and the same one-two beat and a sample, then thats not hip-hop. But, to me, thats boring, and I dont wanna do that. If thats your version, I mean, thats cool, but you ought to listen to everything. Itd make your music better.
Indeed, the end product that became Stankonia may not have constituted a 180 degree about-face, but it nevertheless flipped the script in thrillingly unanticipated ways and represented an entirely different breed of OutKast album to date. Relegated to producing just three tracks on the album, including the instantly memorable pimp-strut of a third single So Fresh, So Clean, Organized Noize played a diminished role, as André and Big Boi partnered with David Mr. DJ Sheats to produce the majority of the song suite under the Earthtone III moniker. Arguably aided by the widespread acceptance of the albums three singles, and particularly the irresistibly catchy, Grammy Award-winning Ms. Jackson, Stankonias leftfield approach and new sonic direction didnt prevent the group from reaching a broader audience and experiencing legitimate mainstream success for the first time, four albums and six years into their recording career.
To be sure, Stankonia is OutKasts most wildly imaginative record, but its also their most unnerving and frenetically charged effort to date, one that requires a fair amount of patienceand at least a few spins, preferably with headphones in order to discover and appreciate its less immediately obvious charms. Those who stick with it are handsomely rewarded with a kaleidoscopic and challenging (in a good way) listening experience that seamlessly integrates its vibrant patchwork of manifold influences, from rock to funk to drum-n-bass-to soul to Miami bass and beyond. The albums refusal to be defined according to narrow, genre-specific terms likely explains why when prompted to recall the album, most will immediately gravitate to the albums three singles, with memories of the records other tunes remaining a bit hazy. Quite a few reviewsboth around the time of the albums release and the more recent retrospective tributesfocus disproportionately on the trio of singles, arguably the most accessible, pop-friendly fare on the album. But the album digs way deeper and bumps way louder than its three most recognizable tunes alone.
Following the brief mission statement of an intro that defines Stankonia as the place from which all funky things come, the guitar-fueled, apocalyptic wake-up call of an album opener Gasoline Dreams kicks in with electrifying vengeance, as André exhorts burn muthafucker, burn American dreams. Emblematic of one of the albums key thematic threads and the duos renewed vigor, Gasoline Dreams couples their incisive commentary on the complexities of modern ghetto life (Youth full of fire ain’t got nowhere to go) with an underlying message of hope for a brighter day, best reflected by Andrés admission about his sons future (Pray I live to see the day when Seven’s happily married with kids).
The raw, fierce energy of Gasoline Dreams is exceeded only by the albums first single, the curiously titled, certifiably bangin B.O.B., with its drum n bass indebted rhythms and stirring chorus chant of Bombs Over Baghdad. Clocking in at a feverish 155 beats-per-minute, the track forces both emcees to augment the speed of their flows to keep pace, which only serves to enhance the tracks frenzied feel. Some have naively suggested that owing to its title and chorus, B.O.B. was conceived by the group as a politically-driven, prescient track that envisaged the allied forces 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But a closer listen to the lyrics reveals that such an interpretation is misguided, as the song actually explores the dichotomy between the emcees lives pre- and post-stardom, while hyping their respective rhyme skills relative to their competition. Even André has admitted that he randomly overheard the expression Bombs over Baghdad uttered by a TV news anchor while on tour in London, and thought that it sounded good and I knew I could use it somewhere.”
Released as the albums second single shortly before Stankonia hit stores, the introspective Ms. Jackson juxtaposes Big Bois resentment of the post-breakup treatment hes received from his exs mother with Andrés heartfelt act of contrition, as manifested through his fictionalized exploration of the end of his relationship with Erykah Badu. A repentant André addresses his former partners mother in the songs chorus, remorsefully conceding that he never meant to make your daughter cry / I apologize a trillion times and later vowing to remain an integral part of her grandsons life. A watershed moment for the group from a crossover perspective, Ms. Jackson deservedly hit number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in February 2001 and won the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group honor at the 2002 Grammy Awards.
The unabashedly braggadocious third single So Fresh, So Clean harkens back to the pimped-out funk of their debut LP, which should come as no great surprise since it features Organized Noizes production prowess. Fifteen years on, I still find myself singing the unforgettable chorus Aint nobody dope as me / Im just so fresh, so clean in the shower (appropriately enough), walking down the street or at totally random moments throughout the day. Some of the most memorable and playful rhymes OutKast has ever delivered on wax appear here, with Big Bois wonderful Teddy Pendergrass, cooler than Freddie Jackson sippin a milkshake in a snowstorm line a personal favorite. How can you not love a song that name-checks Pendergrass, Jackson, Anne Frank, Jack Tripper and Rick James, all in the span of 2 and a half minutes?
Again, all three singles are classics that still sound as invigorating as ever today, but there are a handful of other standout tracks that never received the official release treatment. A reference to the nickname of the well-traversed Tom Moreland freeway interchange in Atlanta, the melodic Spaghetti Junction finds André and Big Boi trading verses about growing up in the city, with the lofty daydreams of childhood being replaced by the harsh realities of drugs, racism and crime as they grew older. Its a sobering narrative, and one that laments the frustratingly convoluted path too many black men must take to escape the ghetto en route to enjoying a better, safer way of life. Featuring a guest-spot from Badu, the rollicking Humble Mumble explores the importance of accepting the curveballs that the great big rollercoaster of life invariably throws at you, persevering and re-routing your dreams in the face of whatever adversities may come your way.
Other highlights include Ill Call B4 I Come, a slinky ode to the more selfless, deferential approach to sex, which, more than any other track on the album, summons the provocatively funky spirit of the Purple One. The duo gets deep without getting too preachy on Red Velvet, a cautionary public service announcement about the pitfalls of subscribing to your own hype at the expense of humility, and Toilet Tisha, a somber tale reminiscent of 2Pacs Brendas Got a Baby about the psychological struggles and fatal consequences of a pregnant 14 year-old girl grappling with her secret shame.
Though OutKast would experience success on an even more impressive scale three years later with the release of the double-LP Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and the irrepressible ubiquity of lead single Hey Ya!, Stankonia ultimately proved to be a crucial tipping point in the groups already acclaimed career. Without question, it was their first legitimate behemoth of an album, with the commercial reach (4x platinum to date) to match its critical accolades (95 Metacritic score; Best Rap Album Grammy Award; included on too many best-of-year and best-of-decade lists to count).
Its also the first album on which André and Big Boi began to express their individuality by flexing their respective creative impulses, as evidenced by Andrés generally fruitful attempts at singing and guitar-playing throughout the album. Mr. DJ, the duos partner in the Earthtone III production collective, suggests that Everybody had a lot of input, therefore we made good songs. Everybody was at their creative max, which I think in turn caused everybody to kind of branch off and start to do their own thing because now you have your individuality and you want to express that. Implicit within Mr. DJs reflections, and as other music scribes have posited, is the suggestion that the artistic freedom that André and Big Boi relished in crafting Stankonia ultimately served as the impetus for the pair devoting themselves wholeheartedly to their respective solo projects after the release of the Idlewild soundtrack in 2006. Indeed, OutKast has effectively been on indefinite hiatus as a group for nearly ten years now (as Key & Peele recently parodied to hilarious effect), with last years 20th anniversary reunion performances the only visible evidence of their continued collaboration.
A handful of folks have likened Stankonia to Princes Sign O the Times, arguably owing to both albums ambitious genre-blurring vision, thematic variety, and sonic multi-dimensionalism. Well, sure, I suppose I understand the parallels. But for me, Stankonia is Stankonia, plain and simple. An expansive, irresistibly inventive, and endlessly gratifying musical mélange that warrants no comparison at all.
My Favorite Song: Humble Mumble