It’s hard to imagine now, but back when Outkast won Best New Rap Group at the Source Awards in 1995, the pair were openly heckled on stage. Living up to their namesake, Big Boi and André 3000 were ostracized by East and West Coast gatekeepers who felt that the Dirty South couldn’t add anything new to their ongoing battle. Little did they know that Outkast would go on to record the best-selling rap album of all time and redefine the limits of what hip-hop can achieve.
It’s been 25 years since Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik changed the game completely, relocating hip-hop’s centre of power away from the coasts towards Atlanta and its neighboring cities. Given how the Dirty South would go on to propel rap’s chart success for years to come, it’s easy to see why Outkast’s legacy remains so crucial to hip-hop as a whole.
However, their unprecedented success with later projects like Speakerboxxx and The Love Below also hampered the group’s impact somewhat as well. Once “Hey Ya!” shook the airwaves like a polaroid picture, Outkast couldn’t shake the song’s impact, and that ended up being the track they’d become known for most, even though it only included half of the group and deviated plenty from their signature sound.
If it’s hard to deny the exuberant joy of “Hey Ya,” then it’s even harder to deny that Outkast deserve recognition for so much more than just that song too – and that’s where we come in. Join us here at Highsnobiety as we head on down to the cosmic world of Stankonia and celebrate what makes everyone’s favorite ATLiens tick.
Welcome To Atlanta
By 1994, hip-hop was thriving in the midst of a true golden age that was characterized almost entirely by the rigid dichotomy of East vs. West. In a year where legends like Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. also made their debut within this framework, the odds were initially stacked against Southern rappers like Three Stacks and Big Boi, but this outsider status ultimately became their strength, providing Outkast with a genuinely unique outlook which helped set their music apart.
Soaring in from outer space with “Players Ball,” Outkast proved they had plenty of fresh things to say from the moment they first landed on earth, even if their signature sound hadn’t fully cohered by this point. That turned out to work in their favor though, as it’s hard to imagine what people would have made of Outkast if they’d arrived with the funky and often bizarre flavor of later years. Instead, their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik hit hard because it brought something new to the table without rewriting the rules entirely.
The futuristic, game-changing beats that Organized Noize developed for the album were initially grounded by lyrics that rooted Outkast firmly in the streets of Atlanta. Infusing Southern sensibilities with elements of East and West Coast rap, the group simultaneously sounded both fresh and nostalgic. Finding success in these kind of contradictions would later come to define Outkast’s sound completely, but at the beginning, André and Big Boi shared a similar “playa” aesthetic that helped them establish a footing in the industry, despite their initial underdog status.
Although early tracks like “Crumblin’ Erb” and “Get Up, Get Out” hinted at the woozy, soulful promise of their later albums, it wasn’t until Outkast released a follow up two years later that the Two Dope Boyz would successfully amalgamate their own individual sounds with a natural and fully realized interplay between the two as well.
While Big Boi successfully honed his ‘street’ lyricism and a nimble flow on ATLiens, André released his otherworldly persona, tackling metaphysical notions of life and spirituality while dressed in forward-thinking fashion. On paper, this sounds like a strange fit, but by combining two different and yet equally valid aspects of black identity, Outkast were able to anchor themselves in something relatable while simultaneously pushing boundaries via their eccentric lyrical content.
This complex and yet wholly organic approach helped expand the limits of hip-hop in ways no one has quite been able to emulate since and nowhere is this more clear than on Aquemini, Outkast’s third and arguably greatest album. By this point, it was already becoming clear that André and Big Boi were heading in different directions artistically, but these separate paths still merged beautifully here, suggesting that any attempt to define Outkast purely through oppositional terms is fruitless.
With a title that literally combined their star signs together, Aquemini proved that the divide between gangsta and ‘alternative’ rap is a false one, foreshadowing Generation Z’s own disregard for genre on the charts today. Outkast themselves were keenly aware of this, playing around with their image in videos like “Rosa Parks” where the pair make a point of agreeing to combine both of their aesthetics at once. Why limit yourself to one thing when you can do both?
It’s no wonder then that Aquemini became the first Southern hip-hop album to earn a five-mic rating from The Source and by the time that Stankonia hit stores in 2000, it was clear to everyone that Outkast were already one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. Rather than just look to the past and celebrate the present like so many of their peers were prone to do, André and Big Boi continued to cast a collective eye towards the future as well, spreading some stanklove across genres far and wide.
The heady mix of dance and rap that characterized “B.O.B.” would still be a game-changer if it was released today and even more commercial offerings like “Ms Jackson” and “So Fresh So Clean” never compromised the essence of Outkast. Through a potent concoction of gospel, jazz and psychedelic soul, Stankonia demonstrated how marketable hip-hop could be without selling out, keeping one foot in the streets and the other out in space. Through these means, Outkast continued to straddle a fine line between chart-friendly hooks and creative artistry, even though it became clear in hindsight that the group’s yin-yang dynamic would soon come to an end.
André once summed up Outkast’s appeal when he said that: "We’re in the age of keeping it real, but we’re trying to keep it surreal," and this division eventually came to fruition with the release of the group’s double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. While Big Boi leaned harder than ever into the real on his half with sardonic wit and gangsta rhymes, André floated away completely, exploring the surreal via celestial dimensions of love and cosmology.
Hip-hop has been the dominant force in music for a few years now, but back in 2003, the amount of units that Outkast shifted with their fifth studio album was unprecedented, and even today, it remains the best selling hip-hop release of all time. Singles such as “I Like The Way You Move” topped the charts and raised Outkast’s profile even further, but “Hey Ya!” was the album’s breakout single, positioning André and Big Boi firmly in the mainstream like never before.
The Whole World
Although they were no longer outcasts in a traditional sense (and hadn’t been for some time by that point), the legacy Outkast left behind following the release of “Hey Ya” is still somewhat clouded – and it’s not just because of the muted response Idlewild received either.
Much of their early work has since been drowned out by the “alright alright alright” refrain of “Hey Ya!” which dominates any discussion of Outkast these days, much like it does weddings across the country too. Few discourses on classic hip-hop involve the likes of ATLiens or Aquemini until the contributions that Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., and that other Dre made are mentioned first, even though these albums are just as influential.
Outkast themselves even had to speak up for the group’s wider body of work back when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below took home a Grammy for Album of the Year. During his speech, André had to remind the audience that Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was their first album, not Stankonia, suggesting that the majority of Outkast’s legacy was given short shrift even back then.
That’s not to say their early contributions have been ignored completely. Even though André rarely records music anymore and Big Boi’s solo work is unfairly overlooked, Outkast’s essence still beats at the heart of hip-hop, whichever way you look at it, and the excitement their 2014 reunion incited proves they’re far from forgotten.
A wide range of artists including Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and even Lil Wayne can all trace their inspirations back to Outkast, whether it’s through their emotional vulnerability, their cosmic strangeness or the thematic scope of their biggest albums. The Dirty South’s stranglehold on the charts remains strong too thanks to artists like T.I., Young Thug and Migos, something which was practically unheard of before Outkast shifted the industry’s focus to Atlanta.
Despite their widespread influence, few acts directly strive to emulate Outkast in their music and why would they? What Big Boi and André 3000 shared was entirely unique to them and given the impact they made, their presence can still be felt throughout the industry today. After all, the ATLiens may no longer be together in a traditional sense, but “Outkast is everlastin'” and that’s more than we can say for most of the people who first heckled them at the Source Awards back in 1995.