An Aesthetic: Outkast's Twangy, Deep-Fried Musical Galaxy
The best place to start with Outkast isn’t their music. It’s their album covers. From their twisting 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to their certified diamond double album in 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (and hell, throw in the soundtrack to their 2006 film “Idlewild”), the pioneering Atlanta hip-hop duo has told a consistent visual story through something as simple as colorful square embellishing a jewel CD cover. Over a decade’s worth of musical evolution Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “André 3000” Benjamin have consistently stuck to their roles as “the Player and the Poet,” respectively. Their album art always keeps with this motif, depicting Benjamin in action, ready to strike at the heart lyrically, flanked by the calculating Patton, unflinching and unafraid of anything that stands in his way.
While Outkast continuously switched up their style both visually and sonically over their legendary run together, they never deviated from their formative roots and the aforementioned interplay between subtle storytelling and flamboyant finesse. Outkast’s defining characteristic was their inability to be defined, to be put in one singular box. Sometimes they desired to be a plush, velvet-lined box; sometimes they were a jack-in-the-box, uppercutting those who dared to pop open the lid. Their aesthetic was dynamic. And nowhere were these dynamics more prevailing than the timeframe bookended by their two tour de force albums ATLiens and Aquemini, the zenith of their creative prowess.
Patton and Benjamin were both 19 years old when Southernplayalistic was released upon the unsuspecting masses in 1994. Their introduction to the rap world was analog and clanky, interspersed with “peach cobbler soul funk,” which combined to subvert the typical ideals of gangsta rap without flipping the genre on its head. A coming of age story in its own right, the two teens, wise beyond their years, made a statement about life as an African American in the New South. They recounted their time growing up in the East Point and Decatur neighborhoods, with the hope it would be interpreted as a cautionary tale, encouraging their fellow youth to follow their passions, be productive and break the cycle of violence too many of them got caught up in.
With the breakout success of their debut, Outkast took the opportunity to recreate their image as outsiders on the inside. A formative trip to Jamaica resulted in the duo abandoning their cornrows in favor of a more natural look, even vowing to stop combing their hair. Benjamin significantly changed his lifestyle, adopting a more eccentric fashion sense and vegetarianism and abandoning his use of drugs. The two were more confident than ever, acutely aware of the power they wielded with their music and ready to make themselves heard. While Southernplayalistic lit a cool fire underneath contemporary hip hop, ATLiens used that fire as fuel to blast off into outer space.
Even before the intro to their sophomore effort plays, Outkast had already made their statement loud and clear. The title — a portmanteau of the popular abbreviation for Atlanta and “aliens” — represents the duo not only as the aliens of the rap game, but also aliens among a world of humans, aliens because they were true to themselves but misunderstood by everyone else. The packaging of the record makes the same statement as well. Flanked by a horde of unseen monsters, the superhero-like duo is cool, calm and collected, unwavering but very much still themselves; instead of masks, Big Boi rocks a Braves hat and André 3000 a turban. The album’s insert also features a comic strip starring the two as defenders of “positive music” fighting the villain Nosamulli. This storyline does not pervade throughout the actual album, but it serves as a flashy companion piece and sets the tone for the music to come.
While an aesthetic is normally presented visually, ATLiens paints a vivid picture through its distinctive sound and lyrics. Outkast’s previous playa personalities are traded in for more mature, spacey and futuristic personas. Their lyrical content is still very much centered on the South, but scenes of urban life are now interspersed with extraterrestrials and space travel. The production is more laid-back, taking inspiration from dub and reggae but spiced with bits of backwoods country, psychedelic rock and gospel music. Most of the music was handled by Organized Noize, one of the most respected production teams in rap history (Big Boi once compared him to “the Jedi Council”), but the rest of the production is credited to Big Boi and Dré themselves. The heavy use of echo and reverb throughout ATLiens further adds to the floaty, funky sound and allows ideas to drift freely among the stars over the nearly hour-long runtime.
Nowhere on ATLiens is the sparse, atmospheric production better exemplified than the album’s centerpiece, “Elevators (Me & You).” While the track details Outkast’s rise to fame, it is not celebratory; stardom has its ups and downs just as an elevator ascends and descends. Dré’s final verse details him dealing with a “fan” who pretends to be a childhood friend of his: “True, I’ve got more fans than the average man / But not enough loot to last me / To the end of the week, I live by the beat / Like you live check-to-check / If it don't move your feet then I don’t eat / So we like neck-to-neck.” The album’s closer “13th Floor/Growing Old” features a spiritual spoken word piece from Dungeon Family (an Atlanta-based musical collective and frequent collaborator with Outkast) member Big Rube, before ending with a meditation on aging in the face of hedonism and further emphasizing the legitimacy and legacy of Southern hip hop.
Outkast earned their crowns as new kings of the rap game thanks to the immediate impact of ATLiens. Not only did the record sell like hotcakes, it introduced a whole new country-wide audience to the duo and earned them the recognition they deserved outside of the South. During the time between the release of their second and third albums, the two continued to evolve stylistically, but Big Boi mostly remained in the shadows while André 3000 attracted most of the media attention. Although not quite at peak 3 Stacks weirdness yet (if you’re unfamiliar, Key and Peele’s parody of early 2000s André sums up the general public perception of him), he was beginning to let his inner freak flag fly. He took up the guitar and painting and began a new relationship with neo soul queen Erykah Badu. His wardrobe frequently incorporated either traditional African-inspired clothing or, on the flipside, large glasses, blond wigs and marching band uniforms. While the birth of Big Boi’s daughter was central to the new themes of maturity found on ATLiens, the birth of André and Badu’s son Seven in 1997 presented new artistic inspiration for him that would soon manifest itself sonically.
Aquemini is in many ways the focal point of Outkast’s discography; it was released during the middle of Outkast’s lifespan, a time where they were at their absolute peak. It synthesized the sounds present on their first two albums and introduced new musical motifs that would soon become signature. The world of ATLiens is further explored in Aquemini, as the duo further travel throughout outer space in an intergalactic Cadillac with experimental, live instrumentation soundtracking the ride. While Aquemini presents Outkast as more out-of-this-world than ever, Big Boi and André still firmly plant their feet in the Southern soil and fully embrace their roots.
While “Hold On, Be Strong,” the intro to their seminal album, is a piano-tinged calm before the school, Aquemini’s dogs are quickly unleashed upon the listener on “Return of the ‘G.’” 3 Stacks pulls no punches, asserting he’s “gotta grab my piece” to combat those trying to “get a piece of mine.” He imitates his critics: “What’s up with André? / Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? / Is he gay? / When y’all gon’ break up? When y’all gon’ wake up?” He gets all those trivial questions out of the way by Big Boi and him asserting they never abandoned their pimp personalities of the past. Instead, they metamorphosed, they synthesized. They’re whole planets ahead of the competition.
The player and the poet characters are fully brought to life on Aquemini. It can be seen in the “Rosa Parks” music video, where Big Boi sits on his throne, flanked by video vixens, as red strobe lights flash in the background. Dré, on the other hand, prefers to dance on neon-colored street corners among a vibrant marching band, wearing only a baseball catcher’s chest protector and tiger-print pants. This duality between the two members is best explored on “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1),” where they “shoot game in the form of story raps.” Big Boi recounts a simple tale of a sexual experience with a mythical nymphomaniac named Suzy Skrew, who he leaves with “a Lil’ Will CD, and a fuckin poster” before returning home to his baby mama. 3000 weaves a complicated narrative of his forgotten love with Sasha Thumper, a friend of Suzy’s who is later found dead “in the back of a school / With a needle in her arm, baby two months due.” In his powerful verse, André delivers one of his most memorable and poignant lyrics ever: “Talking bout what we gonna be when we grow up / I said, ‘What you wanna be?’/ She said, ‘Alive’/ It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes.”
Every song on Aquemini is powerful in its own right, ethereally exploring different aspects of the human condition by mixing science fiction-inspired topics with the harsh realities of Atlanta life. “Skew It on the Bar-B” and “West Savannah” are acknowledgements of their game-changing influence on rap, inviting their critics to better understand the multifaceted essence of the South while at the same time leaving them bewildered. “I be got, damn it, they done changed the rules,” yell the old heads, but Big Boi and 3000 can’t hear them as they cruise past on 24-inch caprices. “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” juxtaposes a story of hopeless infatuation over triumphant trumpets. “Nathaniel” is a 70-second-long a cappella rap recorded in a Georgia prison that serves as the intro for the sprawling, eight-minute-long epic “Liberation.” The closer “Chonkyfire” is much like a note imploring you “burn after reading,” as a flaming guitar riff sets the entire album ablaze and punctuates it with a fiery exclamation mark.
Aquemini is an album of fusion. Big Boi and André 3000 established a system of checks and balances between their two personas. While Benjamin was no stranger to spacing out, Patton’s interstellar lasso always kept him tethered to Earth. Outkast is neither Old School or New School; they perfectly sit at the union of both, and Aquemini proves this. The music is tinged in reincarnation, rather than re-interpretation. It laid out a blueprint for the future to follow, but the language was so alien only Marvin the Martian could understand it.
The most important award Outkast ever won was not a single one of their six Grammys, but instead was bestowed upon them at 1995 Source Awards. Taking place during the height of East Coast-West Coast rivalry, a Southern rap group taking home any sort of prize would be blasphemous. Yet Outkast did, winning “Best New Rap Group,” much to the distaste of the crowd. André 3000 and Big Boi’s walk up to the stage was greeted by boos on all sides, East and West, but it took only a few words to shut them down. “But it’s like this though, I’m tired of them closed minded folks, it’s like we gotta demo tape but don't nobody want to hear it,” exclaimed Dré fearlessly, “but it’s like this: the South got something to say.” And on ATLiens and Aquemini, say something they did, shouting it from every Atlanta rooftop and blasting it from the speakers of every Coupe de Ville.