Ever since rock ‘n roll sank its irretractable claws into popular culture, there have been transcendent stars that carry an otherworldly presence. For the hip-hop generation, this artistic omnipotence has been hard to maintain. Due to the genre’s tendency to move as a uniformed force, its biggest artists are restricted from the air-tight experimental separatism that allows its more idiosyncratic figures to construct their mythologies. In fact, there is only one MC that has retained their transfiguring power through a 25-plus year career, and that is none other than André 3000.
To clarify, being a musical enigma entails more than one-off conceptually-minded visuals or donning some garish garb. Instead, it is an aura that makes an artist’s every aboveground appearance into a news item. In the case of André Benjamin, you’d need only look as far back as last month, when James Blake delivered Assume Form to the world. Divisive as the response to the album was, its least contentious point came with André’s feature on “Where’s The Catch.” Acerbic as ever, his latest resurfacing had the same earth-shattering effect as his guest spots on Frank Ocean’s Blonde or Channel Orange, Travis Scott’s “The Ends,” and other sporadic appearances that he’s made in recent years. At a time when features are as commonplace as trap beats, pandemonium sets in whenever 3 Stacks stirs from his creative cryosleep, and it all comes down to his balance between preservation and evolution.
To depict how André became hip-hop’s most fascinating artist, we need to venture back to the days when he and Antwan ‘Big Boi’ Patton first made their presence felt. Three years on from a chance meeting at the Lenox Square Mall, OutKast had crafted their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik with long-time collaborators Organized Noize by the time André was 19. While steeped in the inventive southern rap of The Geto Boys and UGK, the Atlanta duo’s use of live instrumentation was an early allusion to their desire to splinter off into uncharted territory. Lyrically preoccupied with escaping the systemic pitfalls of their community, the next decade saw André and Big Boi undergo frequent reinventions that earned them an air of unpredictability.
Just as David Bowie abandoned folk music for glam rock hedonism or Björk dispensed with tweeness for the avant-garde, André would completely overhaul his persona during the journey from underground acclaim to the Album of the Year-winning Speakerboxx / The Love Below. From ATLiens through to Aquemeni and Stankonia, progression was always high on the agenda and manifested in André’s ability to blur the lines between genre without jeopardizing his reputation as a top tier MC. In many ways, this gradual departure from hip-hop’s predisposed motifs would all culminate on The Love Below. Comprised of two discs that gave each member space to execute their vision, André’s side was a futuristic celebration of black music that fused funk and soul with R&B and denoted a shift in not only musicality but outlook. Where André had once been a proponent of the casual misogyny that is prevalent throughout hip-hop, his magnum opus saw him canonize women as cosmic beings on ballads such as “Prototype” and “Pink & Blue.” Conceived as an “anti-response” to hip-hop’s “steel exterior” that persisted through to his Mother’s Day tracks of 2018, this growth has made immeasurable contributions to his status as rap’s greatest unsolvable puzzle.
However, music is only ever one side of the coin when it comes to perennial greats, and his sonic exploration has gone hand-in-hand with retooling his wardrobe. Years before rappers were the toast of the fashion world, André was ditching jerseys and Timbs to dabble in rock star androgyny. Since the days where he juxtaposed Raekwon and Big Boi’s staid looks with a blonde wig and feathered attire in the “Skew-It on the Bar-B” video, his urge to defy convention in music was only equaled by his affinity for taboo-shattering outfits. Decked out in furs, suedes, and head-pieces, the flamboyance of the Stankonia era would serve as an invaluable source of inspiration for future stars to cast off the mundane, from Young Thug to Lil Uzi Vert to Tyler, the Creator. Much like his iconoclastic predecessors, André has made signature looks synonymous with different eras of his career. Exemplified by The Love Below’s “hood-prep” or the socio-political sloganry on his 2014 reunion tour jumpsuits, his theatrical approach to dress places him in a unique space that today’s rappers have just begun to emulate.
13 years after his last album, it’s almost jarring that 3 Stacks carries the same vitality as he did when OutKast were biannually churning out records. Yet when you look at today’s leading artists, many of them are either self-professed disciples of the Atlanta legend or visibly bear his hallmarks. Felt in Anderson .Paak’s fusion of hip-hop and live instrumentation or Frank Ocean’s elusiveness as a means of retaining efficacy, his groundwork has been tended to in a number of diverse ways. Revered by Kendrick Lamar – who infamously couldn’t get a feature from André – Janelle Monáe, and A$AP Rocky to collaborators such as Kid Cudi, Travis Scott, and Kaytranada, his osmosed impact was summarized by Childish Gambino in 2013:
“A lot of the tracks, I feel, were influenced by that kind of stuff [OutKast], even unconsciously, because I never tried to go after that sound, but you listen to Kendrick, too, you can see how he’s a little influenced by it.”
Now that hip-hop is hellbent on unbinding from constraints, it only makes sense that the boldly courageous André would remain so captivating to modern artists. Emboldened by his unwavering sense of self, André is a testament to flouting all of the industry commandments and diversifying at every turn. While his OutKast cohort Big Boi seldom retreats from the spotlight, we’re still awaiting that vaunted solo album that he’s conceded would be his “only regret” should he abruptly pass away. Kicked off by the film accompaniment to their final record Idlewild, the years since he called a halt to the iconic duo have been typified by forays into the visual world. Much like his own idol Prince, these dalliances with movies and other mediums have been decidedly hit or miss; such as André’s depiction of Jimi Hendrix in a film devoid of his music, but he’s taken it all in stride.
From the financial misfire of his Benjamin Bixby clothing line to the whimsical Class of 3000 animated series’ cancellation before it could fulfill its potential, André has proven himself as comfortable in universal acclaim as he is with glorious failure, never feeling compelled to make any concessions. Allured by new ideas rather than beholden to the old, this need to strive forward not only explains why he “felt like a sell-out” during OutKast’s 2014 reunion, but also how he remains so enigmatic nearly 30 years after he first graced the public eye.
A credo for the new generation that hope to follow in his footsteps, and an embodiment of how he’s retained every shred of magnetism, it is only right to end on words from the man himself:
“That’s one of my mottos, don’t let people get comfortable with what you’re doing.”