Despite what some assiduous direct-mail marketers think, I am not female, black, or successful. But I am thinking about a black mother, specifically Erykah Badu, and her good taste in men. Her babydaddy, OutKast’s Andre Benjamin a/k/a Andre 3000 a/k/a Earthtone III, is my favorite producer this year, and I’d cross the street to hear him rhyme, too. Reasonable, funny, double-jointed, and dusted on wax, Andre 3000 playing live in his majorette uniform made me bounce so hard I got punk neck. The video for “Bombs Over Baghdad” is for mothers, fathers, all of us. The song thunders out of the goggle box, everything louder than everything else, which makes Andre jump off his bed (clothed, sort of). He runs down the stairs, out of the projects, over a fence and down the street, trailed by a gaggle of beautiful children. It’s a jelly doughnut of positive energy and creative surplus (I know for a fact that grass in Atlanta is not purple). Without saying it, Andre says, “More, now, go, come on.” What he does say describes a reality I am very comfortable with: “Black Cadillac with a pack of Pampers/stack of questions with no answers.” Back in the video, he ends his sprint by jumping into a switch-hitting low-rider helmed by a hottie (which begins the less groundbreaking, booty-licious half of the video), but hey, she’s got braces. So what do I think of kids following an unusually clad, sexually open-minded role model rapping like an antelope? Like Champion, I say yes. And a black man running toward something, not from something, is a powerful image for me, but it’s probably about 20 times more powerful for someone else.
Badu and Andre split up earlier this year, and a few months later she hooked up with Common, who’s also pretty good genetic material. Less bouncy but just as pretty, he loves words and makes them work, except for his Tourette’s-like homophobic outbursts. I don’t feel Like Water For Chocolate like I do Stankonia, but the video for “The Light” is its own kind of radical. Expressing sweetness all over, it depicts romance as something other than cynical profit maximizing and cold reciprocity. That’s unique in pop culture right now—you read the papers, don’t you?—but positively unicorn-like in hip-hop. The images in “The Light” are more vivid than a 100 Ruff Ryder motorcycles (except for that dragon-looking one): Pulling a blankie up over your woman as she sleeps? Badu putting on her little rainbow toe socks? Peeling fruit? As Colleen “Survivor” Haskell would say, How good is that? If it seems calculated or cheesy to you, you probably think culture can clean its own scum, magically, like a stove, making Common both unnecessary and a goody goody. A line like “I never call you my bitch or even my boo/There’s so much in a name and so much more in you” probably wouldn’t have made me raise my head three years ago, either. But now, when the most popular rapper in the omniverse publicly abuses his wife right out of the marriage (and her mind) and delivers new synonyms for “slut” to awestruck kids parsing every toxic burp, “The Light” is a Camp David in the middle of pop culture’s West Bank. To varying degrees of intensity and success, Andre 3000 and Common are attempting to be decent in a genre that rewards decency with a trip to the cutout bin. More to the point, great records like Stankonia are freaky and cool enough to convert youngsters who could give a shit about decency but absorb more content than old folks even notice. OutKast is my bet for the youth in 2001—my son already thinks pith helmets and capri pants look just fine together.