Outkast”s Andr 3000 and Big Boi are cosmopolitan motherfuckers. In between chasing hoes and smoking chronic, the Atlanta-based rappers listen to all kinds of music, sit on their stoop and watch the world go by, spend a lot of time talking about their and their peers” problems, out-philosophize their contemporaries and avoid gangsta clichs like Radiohead avoid guitars. Augmenting their pimp-posturing and countrified drawl with cosmic grooves and sonic sprawl, they”ve got big ears as well as big you-know-whats, and they”re happy to tell you all about it.
They”re also popular. They sell lots of records, they make hit singles, their videos are played on MTV, the press fawns over them. In sum, they”ve got both the talent to make themselves worth hearing and the hooks to make themselves heard the very alliance of commerciality and content which from Beatles to Prince to Nirvana has always made for classic rock “n roll records, the kind that fill top-100 polls, the kind that both you and your kids will listen to, the kind that aren”t soon forgotten.
Outkast has made such a record. It”s called Stankonia, and since it was released last Halloween, it”s sold more than three million copies, peaked at number two on Billboard”s album chart and spawned a pair of hit singles. It also topped the Village Voice”s Pazz & Jop critics” poll, which is perhaps the most prestigious accolade the duo reeled in amid a flood of kowtowing press. Last week, Outkast embarked on a 29-city, six-week-long tour that has them swinging by Detroit”s Fox Theater tonight, dragging fellow Atlantan Ludacris (of “What”s Your Fantasy?” fame) with them.
Not that Outkast need to play live. Beside making them multimillionaires, Stankonia was a statement-and-a-half, one which may very well have earned the group a spot in the pantheon of great forward-thinking black musicians, right alongside the funksters and R&B singers they grew up listening to.
“This thing keeps building,” said Andr Benjamin a/k/a Andre 3000 a/k/a just Dr. “When I read Prince books, he”s always sayin” how he just wants to sing like Smokey Robinson. And he was also a big George Clinton fan. Prince was like the next step of that, you know? And I”m a huge Prince fan, so to even be put in the same sentence as any of those people is a blessing. All I can say is that I love those people to death, and I hope people love us like I love them.”
Dr has reason to expect comparisons with his heroes, since Clinton in particular has always been Outkast”s spiritual and sonic forbear. Beginning with their debut LP, (1994″s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, a record with an appropriately Clinton-esque name), Outkast co-opted both his astral funk sound and pimp poses. Having gone all-out space-funk for 1996″s ATLiens, Aquemini (1998) found the duo edging toward with hip-hop maximalism, drawing on new sounds and elastic grooves and even dishing out a certified pop hit (and prompting a stupid lawsuit) in “Rosa Parks.”
Stankonia”s full-on maximalism has less to do with the group”s influences than its resourcefulness. The drum “n bass-isms of “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Bagdhad)” are but one sonic coup de grace that most hip-hoppers couldn”t pull off half as well as these guys do, let alone within a song that”s garnered bigtime airplay and been deemed buzz-worthy by MTV. “From listening to just straight drum “n bass, you kinda know what the street of America will accept,” Dr explained. “Drum “n bass or jungle in its simplest form or in its origin will probably never work in America. It might work in some clubs, but what you do is take it and make it your own.”
Mainstreamers as they are, Outkast have the pop smarts to keep the experiments and appropriation from turning into indulgent hip-hop pastiche. On Stankonia, hooks abound. From the way Dr drawls as he rhymes “pie” with “why” on “Gasoline Dreams” to “Ms. Jackson””s sing-song lamentations to the slinky synths of “I”ll Call Before I Come,” you”re sucked into their cosmic urban playground, where the music”s just as interesting as the surroundings.
The record also works because Dr and Big Boi are simply two entertaining and utterly talented MCs. If their cosmopolitanism differentiates them from less-ambitious contemporaries, they”ve gone global because they lead such interesting lives and manage to set them to music. There”s some of the requisite respect-yoself, etc., conceits, to be sure, but Stankonia is by and large the soundtrack to these guys” exploits: Apologizing to their ex”s mamas, cavorting around with their homeboys, praising the ghetto women who keep them real while foolin” around with groupies, waxing philosophic about brothers and sisters whose dreams have been deferred by pregnancy and drug arrests, not giving a damn about the American dream while keeping their own egos in check and not popping a single cap in anyone”s ass.
With so much going on, Stankonia”s sprawl won”t be easy to recreate live, but Outkast certainly aren”t rolling over and planning the sort of bullshit live show that”s become the hip-hop counterpart to the State Fair classic rock gig. “For our show, it”s going to be me, Big Boi, our DJ, three background singers and two guitarists,” Dr said. “And we also have the crowd-pleasers dancers. We also got a nice light show. I guess it”s a little otherworldly. I really don”t know what you call it.”
Call it Stank-love, live. “Stankonia,” by the way, refers to “the place from which all funky things come.” Rest assured, there”ll be some funky things coming from the Fox Theater tonight.
Jason Birchmeier conducted the interview with Andr Benjamin that was excerpted for this article.