October: OutKast’s Stankonia
In October, Essentials will feature the fourth studio album from game-changing, ground-breaking Atlanta duo OutKast, Stankonia. The follow-up to 1998’s Aquemini, their 1-hour-and-13-minute 2000 masterpiece finds OutKast doing the absolute most and not missing a single step in the process.
Though the album turned 20 this year — the perfect occasion for an Essentials feature — the VMP team all agrees Stankonia’s been a no-brainer for as long as anyone could remember. OutKast tossed their untouchable and evolving strain of Southern rap alongside funk, New Wave, soul, psych rock, and gospel into a high-power Organized Noize and Earthtone III production blender and out came a mind-boggling record. Recorded in their new Atlanta recording studio, the aptly named Stankonia Studios, OutKast busted boundaries and leaned full-force into risks on every account, from vocal styling to production, and everything in between, solidifying their influence and stance as hip-hop luminaries for far longer than we can probably ever imagine.
"OutKast's Stankonia is a record that still feels far ahead of its time; there hasn't been anything remotely like it in the 20 years since it was released,” said VMP Editorial Director Andrew Winistorfer. “To me, that fact makes it maybe their most Essential record; this was like a perfect storm moment of OutKast's internal push-pull between the avant-gardism of André and the Southern bedrock of Big Boi meeting their ability to warp rap into whatever they decided it was from moment to moment. It's a record that belongs in every collection, where it should be played, studied, and passed down to future generations like a talisman."
You can read the liner notes here.
November: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun
In November, Essentials is featuring Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. Another 20th anniversary record that highlights a feature from our previous month’s OutKast record, Mama’s Gun is Badu’s third LP. Twenty years time has only further proven that Mama’s Gun remains to be an Essential release in a catalog that is itself Essential.
Recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York (save for a couple tracks recorded in Dallas), the boundary-pushing record’s blockbuster roster of collaborators includes, but certainly isn’t limited to, Roy Hargrove, Pino Palladino, Questlove, James Poyser, Roy Ayers, Jay Dilla, Betty Wright, Zap Mama, Karen Wheeler, Tom Soares, and Jack DeJohnette. With Erykah Badu remaining a long-time favorite (and former Hip-Hop feature) for VMP, November’s feature came from a delightful social media surprise, and has been a project we’ve been anticipating ever since.”
“This all started after Erykah actually DM’d us on Instagram,” Head of A&R Alex Berenson said. “Not only is she an amazing artist with a huge pedigree, this is just a great record and it’s the 20th anniversary, so we were just like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do this!’ So, after a couple conversations with them, we were able to get it moving. We found out there were tapes available, but they were on multiple tapes, so someone had to go in, find all of the tapes, clean them up so it was the same track listing and, luckily, it turned out beautifully.
“It was a really incredible experience working with her and her team. She created and wrote the cocktail recipe for this; she was involved in picking the image we used for the art print, she really wanted to ensure that, when talking about this record, we weren’t espousing our own views and opinions on it, but really taking it for what it is, letting it speak for itself, and letting her speak for herself. This one was kind of a no-brainer. We’ve worked with Erykah on our Hip-Hop subscription, we knew we wanted to do one of her records for Essentials, and the anniversary just ended up being a great time to do it.”
December: Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues
Finally, we cap the year off with the incomparable Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues. Released in December 1956 simultaneously with her co-written autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues is the complex and arresting late-career work of a vocal jazz hero.
Backed by trumpeter Charlie Shavers, saxophonist Paul Quinichette, pianist Wynton Kelly, and guitarist Kenny Burrell, Lady Sings The Blues is both sparse and arresting, carving the stage for a drop-dead, but not not over-the-top, vocal performance only a master and a genius like Holiday could give.
“I have wanted to run a Billie Holiday record for a really long time. I grew up listening to like 40 percent vocal jazz artists — so Billie and Ella and Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. This is just the one that has always been really special to me,” Berenson said.
“The whole record is really stunning, and I reached out to the label because I realized that not a lot of her records have been remastered from the original tapes. This record hasn’t had a ‘definitive’ pressing, and when we reached out to the label group they were really excited and said we could use the tapes. Billie’s story is really compelling, and I think it’s not something that the general population knows about that much, so it was a good opportunity to be able to celebrate her and her legacy.”