Atlanta rappers Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “André 3000” Benjamin, best known as the Southern hip-hop duo OutKast, did not appear as disruptors of reality, or deities of pop culture on the cover of their fourth studio album, Stankonia. Big Boi, who stands with a lean, wears a plain white T-shirt, a diamond-encrusted ‘DF’ necklace, and the mug of a man who reveals nothing, not even his teeth. André, who stands upright, has no shirt, posing with his mouth slightly ajar, arms stretched forward, and fingers spread wide as if a pianist or puppeteer.
Behind them, in a monochrome shade of black and white, is an inverted American flag. Unlike the cover art for their 1998 third studio album, Aquemini, which reimagined the two rap stars as radiant mystics, Stankonia strips away vibrancy and comic book illustration for subtle imagery. The stillness of their stances fails to encapsulate how the 24-song, 74-minute magnum opus doesn’t stop moving. Every second detonates with explosive verses, earworm hooks, and barrier-breaking production. Undoubtedly, OutKast at their most extreme.
Following the ’98 release of Aquemini and receiving a historic five-mic review in ’90s hip-hop bible The Source Magazine, OutKast were interviewed by Joe Clair on BET’s defunct hip-hop show Rap City. “Right now, it’s 1999, it’s time to get extreme,” André 3000 says, using the word “boring” to describe how formulaic mainstream rap had become. “You know where the kicks are gonna fall, you know where the snares are gonna fall,” he elaborates, “You see the same thing.” His criticism against predictable hip-hop speaks to where André’s mind was during the making of Stankonia: In search of adventurous soundscapes and surprising lyricism.
Do remember, this is André and Big Boi six years and three albums into their music careers. At 25 years old, the former high school classmates-turned-rap partners were no longer the babyface pupils discovered, groomed, and developed in the early 1990s by Atlanta production trio Organized Noize. The pair entered the year 2000 no longer coming-of-age, but two fully grown men with acclaim from critics, the support of radio, visibility on television, two Platinum albums, and a Grammy nomination for “Rosa Parks,” the lead single off Aquemini. All accomplished without minimizing their Southern individuality in a hip-hop still dominated by rappers from the East and West coasts.
With success came skeptics who questioned if the group could maintain their synergy. They were something of an odd couple; André’s image was no longer Atlanta Brave jerseys and basketball shorts like in their early music videos, and his fashion-forward attires ― ranging from white wigs to football shoulder pads ― were perceived as extravagant compared to his partner’s effortless, contemporary cool. Differences in appearance and changing lifestyles ― André was no longer eating meat, smoking marijuana, or drinking alcohol ― didn’t affect his musical chemistry with Big Boi at all.
That being said, boredom encouraged both members of OutKast to view their next album as an audacious experiment. They began to invent like lionhearted scientists, and Bobby Brown’s former Atlanta studio, Bosstown Recording Studios, became their laboratory. The studio fell into foreclosure in 1997, and was purchased by the duo after a run-in with the New Jack Swing pioneer at a concert in Tennessee. Bosstown was renamed Stankonia after they acquired the space, a new word to knight the new sound emerging from their funk-filled imaginations.
“Right now we gon’ speed this motherfucker up!” André 3000 told a Los Angeles crowd five days before Stankoina’s October 31 release. Music writer Corbin Reiff, in his book Lighters in the Sky, details how, after a whispered count-in, “Three Stacks starts rhyming at a mile a minute over the most frenzied OutKast song of them all, ‘B.O.B.,’ aka ‘Bombs Over Baghdad.’ He wasn’t kidding when he said they were going to speed things up.” Reiff continues: “Watching both men coast through the verses, hardly skipping a word on the 153-beat-per-minute rager is an impressive sight to behold.”
“B.O.B.” exemplifies how lively Stankonia is. As the album’s first single, the rollercoaster record brought to mainstream radio a stampeding, drum & bass tempo that’s not just fast, but electric, a lightning bolt personified. Some might say “B.O.B.” defies definition, but it’s a rap song, aggressively hip-hop, and the arrangement molded their hyper-focused lyricism in a candy-painted world with a chanting choir, glitchy synths, howling guitars, and dynamic percussion. Music that sounds like it was shot out of a cannon.
Although “B.O.B.” reintroduced OutKast as a group that burned with high voltage urgency, what’s equally impressive is Stankonia’s endurance as an album. The CD version is filled to capacity, and not a second is wasted. Big Boi’s wordy, robust style does not run out of steam. His potent verses are acrobatic performances; from the rapid-fire, Killer Mike and J-Smooth featured “Snappin’ & Trappin’” to the oil sleek “So Fresh, So Clean,” Big doesn’t miss a chance to rhyme like a hungry newcomer. André matches this dirty south tenacity at every turn. Regardless of if he’s rapping, singing, or a combination of both, it’s done with striking gusto.
What has always stood out about Stankonia is how motivated OutKast sound to use rap as a vehicle to document their looming thoughts and maturing lives. After seeing the world through tours and returning back home to Atlanta, back to their reality, the music reflects a clarity about who they are and what they stand for. In that regard, Stankonia gives the listener an open, honest hip-hop album that is charged by the changes happening all around them.
Track two, the Khujo Goodie-featured “Gasoline Dreams,” sets an exhilarating tone with a torching of the American dream. The verbal lashing puts in perspective how frustrating the Black American reality is, with her war on drugs, systematic oppression against darker skinned minorities, and the rampant issues of police brutality. To start this way, with a pulsing haymaker, establishes how OutKast isn’t some mainstream group that perpetuate illusions. If anything, over the years, the duo proved to be demystifiers, making hip-hop rethink what southern rap could look and sound like.
Stankonia, more so than any of their previous albums, goes further to dig beneath surface-level hip-hop clichés about love and sex, womenhood and manhood. This is largely due to life experiences. To press play is to hear from two fathers providing for their families using an artform that’s still misunderstood. Coming into this new decade, soon to be a new millennium, their perspectives are critical of everything, and everyone. The dangers of being flossing big spenders, shortsighted hip-hop critics, teen pregnancy, American politics, the changing idealism around sex and pleasure―there’s no topic off the table. Big Boi explains where this passion to discuss worldly issues comes from in the groups Spin Magazine 2001 cover story that commemorated Stankonia’s one year anniversary:
“If [I’ve] got a microphone to speak to the world, I wanna express my views on what’s going on around me. We feel that — just like KRS-One said — when you get on this microphone, you have to educate as well as entertain. We feel that responsibility, but not in a preachy way. We’re gonna party with y’all and slip something in there every now and then — maybe a word or a phrase or a question. And you might be like, ‘Damn, I wonder why they said that?’”
As storytellers with much to say, there’s a fire in OutKast to cover a wide spectrum of subjects while making each song sound like a mini-movie. Sonically, this is accomplished by their expansive production. With Prince, Funkadelic, Parliament, and Sly and the Family Stone as musical muses, Stankonia pulses with all the unexpected twists and gripping turns of a Six Flag roller coaster. Under the pseudonym Earthtone III, André, Big Boi, and their longtime collaborator Mr. DJ produced 13 of the 24 songs, and if you remove the seven interludes, that’s 13 of 16. “This time around we got creative control. We get to do what we really want to do,” asserted Mr. DJ in an interview with the hip-hop website AlphaBeats.
It’s not surprising that Stankonia is OutKast in complete control; the album doesn’t feel restricted by rules. The experimental R&B of “Toilet Tisha,” “Slum Beautiful,” and “Stankonia (Stanklove)” are songs that feel free. Unbound creativity. Even “Ms. Jackson,” the groundbreaking single produced by Organized Noize ― the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Earthtone III’s Anakin Skywalker ― doesn’t have a contemporary hip-hop sound. Twenty years later, radio still hasn’t heard another “Ms. Jackson” or a “B.O.B.,” or “So Fresh, So Clean.” Hip-hop hasn’t heard another album as anomalous and daring as Stankonia by a pair of rappers who refused to be defined by boxes and labels. Why be ordinary when you can be original? That’s the question Stankonia asks.
Americans, as natural-born dreamers, have an innate desire to witness and encounter unordinary and unexplainable feats. We thirst for those who can inspire magic. Any kind of remarkable triumph will be remembered for days, months, years, maybe even decades in the land of the free. But do something supernatural, and you’ll become a myth, a folklore, a deity that lives in the same chamber of American consciousness as other reality defiers.
With the release of Stankonia, OutKast, despite their ordinary appearance on the cover, were no longer ordinary. They transcended to a superhero notoriety that went beyond hip-hop even though rap was still their medium. I can remember how it felt to grow up right outside of Atlanta, just 20 minute south of the major city, and feel how big they were getting. Their songs were everywhere; coming out of every kind of car, nodding the head of every kind of driver. No ceiling was high enough to contain them.
Revisiting the album after two decades, time did not age them. It's as if André 3000 and Big Boi came from the far-off future. Just to smash the idea of what present-day rap could be. Building a new reality for all artists after them, who’d rather be extreme than predictable.
Atlanta-born music journalist Travis “Yoh” Phillips is the author of the hip-hop anthology, Best Damn Hip-Hop Writing: The Book of Yoh, co-host of the high-end southern hip-hop podcast, Sum’n to Say, and the executive producer and co-creator of vérité music documentary series Rap Portraits. He spends his days missing Limewire and discussing hip-hop's blog era.