Music Rewind: Outkast Proved to be the Hip Hop Generation’s Prince with “Stankonia
Nick Anderson | Thursday, September 3, 2009
For the past 20 years, fans have been waiting for hip hop to get their own version of The Beatles. This expectation is unreasonable for all sorts of reasons (unless you’re a fan of The Wu-Tang Clan, then it’s already happened). Strangely enough, there are precedents for some of hip hop’s biggest names. Eminem is a self-styled Elvis. More importantly, OutKast is as close as our generation will ever come to a reincarnation of Prince. The combination of commercial and critical success, ubiquitous hit singles and even a movie form a powerful force in a culture whose attention span has been reduced to Disney bands and ring-tone rappers.
Continuing the Prince comparison, “Stankonia” is OutKast’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” It’s an ambitious album in which their creativity and talent come to a remarkable zenith. Everyone is unconsciously aware of it, even if it’s only because of the ever present “Ms. Jackson,” one of the catchiest and most brilliant singles to come out in the past 15 years. Its radio play unfairly overshadowed not only the other singles but also the album as a whole. It’s too bad because “Ms. Jackson” came off of one of the catchiest and most brilliant albums of the past 15 years.
“Stankonia” comes from “the center of the earth, seven light years below sea level … the place from which all funky thangs come.” Andre 3000 and Big Boi take their inspiration from George Clinton, who first used “stank” to describe funk music, but they do things with it which Clinton never would have imagined. Starting with funk, they incorporate such a wide variety of influences and styles that it’s near impossible to describe the album more specifically than hip hop. Starting with funk, they quickly move to a loose approximation of alt rock, followed by a pop tune, and continue to soul, disco and even a ballad. Each attempt performs at an amazing level.
OutKast has described themselves as a “playa and a poet;” Big Boi being the former and Andre 3000 being the latter. This dynamic was taken to an extreme on their double album “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” but it works much better when they play off of each other within songs. The pair regularly alternate verses on each song resulting in outstanding charisma and songs which include references to skiing, elephants and tennis mixed with smoking crack, tricked out cars and bad women. This is done incredibly smoothly, leaving the listener awestruck. Even the interludes between songs add to the feel of the album, a truly uncommon occurrence.
The culmination of the album comes just before the halfway point of the album with its first single, “B.O.B.” Also less successful than both “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh and So Clean,” “Bombs Over Bagdad” brings impressive energy, unreal sonic texture and wandering stream of consciousness lyrics over heavy booty-bass beats, electronic details and even a choir. It walks on the edge of chaos but is completely comfortable there, never coming close to disaster, even as the chorus descends into nothing more than, “Power music, electric revival.” Instead, those words show that not only can OutKast make hip hop and electronica, but welcome guitar riffs and harmonies. Of course, those of you cool enough to pay attention already know that Pitchfork named it the top track of the 2000s.
In making “Stankonia,” OutKast both transcended and embraced hip hop. In doing so, they created an album that is both essential to the genre and a timeless classic for anyone with a passing interest in music. “Stankonia” is only 10 years old, but its direct influence and inspiration can already be heard throughout the current music landscape. Undoubtedly, its standing with both music critics and fans will only increase with time.