Talking about a Southern hip-hop album used to be easy. All you had to do, basically, was discuss the difference between Sunbelt rappers and Northern rappers, add a few anecdotes about how them all do down home, a generic reference to fried catfish, and one sweeping comment about The South (you know, that part of the country that isn’t Queensbridge or L.A.), and you were pretty much set.
When talking about an album as multilayered, thematically diverse, and sonically rich as OutKast’s Stankonia, though, the best thing is to boil it down to its essentials, its influences, its approaches. You know, the uppercase conceptual stuff. This album, the acclaimed Atlanta duo’s fourth and best, contains so many hummable hooks, so many snap-your-head beats, so many break-’em-out-and-talk-about-’em metaphors, that it’s easy to get lost in the sauce.
To the point: Stankonia is updated Westbound-catalog Funkadelic. That comparison is made carefully, since the critical game of “spot the influence” often obscures the value of a piece of work, either by reading it as an extension of or reaction to something else (Mannie Fresh/Mantronik, Wynton/Duke), or by reading it as a hand-me-down version of, well, something else (usually employed as a way of proving that nothing interesting happened after an arbitrarily designated “golden period”).
The OutKast/P-Funk comparison is something else entirely, though, considering they’ve been big-upping Starchild since the 1994 release of their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The similarities go beyond Dre Benjamin’s Funkensteinish wordplay (not to mention his stage clothes and futuristic Andre 3000 sobriquet). Beyond the acid-funk of “Gasoline Dreams” or “Stankonia (Stanklove),” the squishy synths in “I’ll Call Before I Come” or “Toilet Tisha.” And beyond OutKast’s status as hip-hop’s arty porch-front sages, a reputation that has expanded and deepened with each of their past three albums, reaching a high point with the release of 1998’s Aquemini (though some Southern heads place the previous album, 1996’s ATLiens, at the top of the heap). The similarities run past all that, to areas of concept and aesthetics. OutKast understand the same things that George and Co.’s more sprawling lineups understood: that sounds and timbres often make the best points, that satire is coolest when you include yourself in the crosshairs, that people live more interesting lives than accessories. And that there’s more than one way to deal with life’s shit.
That last point is important to remember, since it’s easy to misread, say, Cash Money’s paper-chasing imagery as not just a reaction to urban decay, but as the only one. Common sense would tell you that a lot of folks in the ‘hood would settle for peace of mind over a platinum grill, but sweeping interpretations don’t leave a lot of room for nuance. If nothing else, Stankonia shows that, depending on the situation, you can get mad, get your groove on, act a fool, weep, wail, and gnash your teeth any number of ways. Like Cosmic Slop-era Funkadelic—whose Southern roots were often not far from the surface—OutKast are masters of the sit-‘n’-look: lying back on the steps, checking things out, beauty and artistry coming not so much from the scenery, but in the skill required to break it all down with style.
Part of that comes from having two distinct writing voices—Big Boi’s eloquent baller, with the flow that often falls just this side of a sneer, and Dre’s planetary neckbone, who breaks up “Gangsta Sh*t” by imagining a walk in the park with his guitar. So “Gasoline Dreams,” “Humble Mumble,” and “?” take different angles on ATL-styled angst: from apocalyptic visions to a laid-off worker drowning himself in alcohol to wry commentary on the efficiency with which “the cracker crumbles” brothers’ aspirations.
On “Ms. Jackson,” the pair apologize to their ex’s mother for making “her daughter cry”—putting the point across with neither the usual ham-handed failed-relationship script nor proclamations about the correct way to break it off with your queen (the song draws partly from Dre’s split with Erykah Badu). The push-pull contrast of Boi’s venom and Dre’s philosophizing shows that these kinds of things are always messy, especially when kids are involved, and no one is ever, completely, 100 percent right. Fuck how it should be; this is how it is. The best you can do is prepare to sweep up the emotional clutter and patch things up with whoever wound up caught in the cross fire.
Less-committed relationships can be funny, though: Like in the chortling single-entendre ode to ejaculatory restraint, “I’ll Call Before I Come,” where Dre expresses his preference for “old school drawers” over thongs. Sex can be tender and honest, too: See “Stankonia (Stanklove)” and “Slum Beautiful.” Or it can be dispassionate and male-bonding wary; on “We Luv Deez Hoes,” Big Boi cautions against overindulging in gold-digging groupies. Or finally, it can be out-and-out brutal—on “Snappin’ & Trappin’,” Dungeon Family protégé Killer Mike speaks of a woman who will “gobble jism like school lunches . . . take cat beatings and throw punches.”
OutKast’s trump card, however, is their feel for sonics and structure. Largely dispensing with the creamy gospel and soul inflections of Aquemini, they’ve moved toward harder, darker textures, in service of song designs that are often disarmingly subtle. With its arsenal of chant-along hooks and gradually unfolding beats, Stankonia would rather trick your glandular response centers than shock them. In some instances, it even lures them into an ambush: “Humble Mumble” ‘s hot-wired bossa nova downshifts on The One so smooth, you wish the cats had recruited The Godfather himself to lay down a “hit me” on the upbeat. Cameo’s Aaron Mills makes a bass appearance on “Ms. Jackson,” accompanied by a dinky bridal-march sub-hook that turns fractured as the tale progresses. And on an album that opens with a sly dis of the ATL bass scene, the fellas’ strongest retort to the “bounce and more bounce” crowd turns out to be “B.O.B.” (a/k/a “Bombs Over Baghdad”), just about the damnedest bass track ever. An electro workout reimagined as a praise-and-worship service, “B.O.B.” uses the classic Southeastern sound as a jumping-off point, building from beat to call-and-response hook to chant to level-shifting outro in freight-train succession: Think Hendrix taking “Wild Thing” ‘s simple refrain into the stratosphere.
The ominous backdrop to “Red Velvet” highlights an antiflossing cautionary that rings truer than most, largely because it sympathizes with the have-nots, rather than the haves. Most hip-hoppers view it from the other side, where getting popped and/or jacked is one of the unfortunate downsides of being ghetto fabulous. But “perils of the rich and famous” jeremiads ring hollow to Dre and Boi; to them it ain’t about money, it’s about simple courtesy and respect (“Bill Gates don’t dangle diamonds in the face of peasants while he’s Microsofting the place”). They’re closer to the “dirty boys”—”haters” to you in the mink—who keep a spare clip for anyone dumb enough to rub their noses in what they ain’t got, and who’ll take your life and leave your money behind just to prove a point.
What’s most impressive, though, is how the group manages to create soundscapes out of familiar—or even retro—sounds. And how they use those sounds to underpin some of their most knowing narratives, like “Toilet Tisha,” a tale of a teenage pregnancy that ends in suicide. Or “Stankonia (Stanklove),” a squishadelic make-out outro with a mournful, Eddie Hazel-style guitar.
Nothing new for these fellas—except this time it sounds like they’ve pulled out all the stops, seemingly conscious that there are still some heads loath to admit that a couple of fish-‘n’-grits eatin’ country kneegrows got a leg up on the rest of the pop crowd. Then again, it’s entirely possible that OutKast are having too much fun to give a shit. Despite its often somber themes, Stankonia sounds like an album that these cats had a ball making. And now they’ve left it out there for anybody, anybody with the will and time, to get eyeball deep into their cosmopolitan slop.