Outkast’s Stankonia presented an eclectic hip-hop utopia

Butch Rosser
Outkast Stankonia hall of fame

The day before Halloween 2020—a phrase as redundant and suitable for mockery as “ATM machine”—will mark the 20th anniversary of Outkast‘s Stankonia. And the more addicted audiophiles can probably guess what’s next: yes, a reissue with some previously unreleased remixes and special limited vinyl will be dropping. More important than listening vehicles or “new” music is the album itself, a masterwork that could arguably be called the first great hip hop album of the 21st century while featuring over an hour of Big Boi & Andre 3000 at the end of their zenith.

Stankonia may be fleshed out with some interludes, but besides the five-mic flow of the Cadillac enthusiasts that’s probably the thing that makes this most resemble any of the other quadrillion hip-hop albums out there; where it elevated into instant classic status was the fact that OutKast specifically avoided listening to hip-hop in the leadup to the album being created and drew from other world class iconoclasts like Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. As a result, the album teems with things other hip-hop wouldn’t or frankly couldn’t do.

It’s in multiple deep cuts that give the album its heft: you hear it in “Gangsta Shit,” where you hear the influence of His Purple Excellency all over the guitar riff augmenting the track and peaking in the chorus. Likewise, album closer “Stankonia (Stanklove)” goes for nearly seven minutes of languorous and ethereal groove that barely features the participants you would expect. OutKast was interested in a polyglot of styles and not just one particular avenue, so you get things like “Spaghetti Junction” that featured a more Soulquarian or Rawkus Records style of backdrop just a few tracks away from things like “We Luv Deez Hoes,” which has aged as you can probably surmise.

Yet that rare failure just underscores the fact that OutKast risked the biscuit a lot more than their legions of inferior peers and more often than not walked away with the whole damn bakery.  After a brief intro, the album proper starts with “Gasoline Dreams” and wastes no time in excoriating America for every person of color that’s been inside of its borders. When Andre sarcastically asks “Don’t everybody like the taste of apple pie?” and follows that up with the grounded rejoinder of “We’ll snap for your slice of life, I’m telling you why!”  it puts the listener with OutKast right from the opening chorus, underdogs (despite worldwide acclaim) and looking beyond the conventional world to find a better, blacker, less buttoned-up future. 

You could pick up on the mentality without even hearing a word if you could see their now-iconic album cover: in front of an American flag swapping black stripes for red ones, Big Boi stands to the left in a white tee that highlights his cross necklace looking for all the world like a man who ends but never starts fights while next to him Dre is topless with his hands reaching towards the camera with heavily lidded eyes. The album’s title itself is a portmanteau with the back end referring to Plutonia, the futuristic city on a poster in Three Stacks’ bedroom. All 3K wanted to do was bring stank levels of funk to a “place [he] imagined where you can open yourself and be free to express anything”.

“Anything,” of course, includes attempts to sum up the history of black music in America with one five-minute song. And OutKast being themselves, “B.O.B.” was the opening single from the album. It’s a lot, but in the best possible ways. You can easily argue that it features Andre’s craziest flow throughout the entire album on a song that presaged the second Bush administration before it began, and while Big Boi’s flow is more concerned with earthly concerns like his family and (possibly kidding) jabs at his competition sweating to try and get the five mics he and his running buddy already tucked in their pockets with the last album it is just as razor-sharp as his partner’s. Add in the Morris Brown College’s gospel choir harmonizing “Power music! Electric revival!” as a sly nod to B&A’s pre-album listening habits for the outro and you have 304 seconds of some of the best music of the aughts regardless of genre. OutKast wasn’t concerned with what the DMXs and Nellys were going to put out—they were more focused on making an album that was undeniably them and making the competition catch up. Yet this didn’t mean they were performing this at the exclusion of everyone else, and often went around Atlanta looking for young up and comers who they thought they could flow with together.

“Snappin’ and Trappin’,” while a quality song, is probably more notable from a historical perspective than the impact of other OutKast tracks. It’s one of the few tracks prior to Speakerboxxx/the Love Below that doesn’t feature Andre in it at all and the first rapper to be featured was a then unknown Michael Render, who’s Killer flow was evidenced from his bars here; ironically enough as OutKast has become classic instead of contemporary, he finds himself in his own legendary hip-hop duo of Run the Jewels. One muthafuckin’ verse and already it’s a classic! indeed.   

And radio hit “Ms. Jackson” got the airplay, but the woman behind the song was on “Humble Mumble” on the album’s back end. Erykah Badu is easily the album’s best guest, moving easily between crooning early in the track and wailing on it the longer it goes. Considering the subject matter, listeners would do well to see it as “Jackson”’s sunnier cousin; whereas that goes deeper into the acrimonious situation of split up partners trying to find a way forward for their kids, “Mumble” answers what happens to a dream deferred: you try to reroute it to something better. It also couples Isaiah 54:17 with possibly machine gunning any opposition in your path, so it is not faultless. 

Stankonia remains mostly so to this day. It is amazing that OutKast got two of the singles into ubiquitous soccer mom territory with “Jackson” as well as “So Fresh, So Clean,” but you can find spiritual cousins all over the album like “Toilet Tisha” (featuring the hardest subject matter of the entire album over a sparse, retro-feeling production and almost no rapping), “Red Velvet” (think of it as What Happens When Keeping It So Fresh & So Clean Goes Wrong, a definite album highlight) or “Slum Beautiful,” which taps into a commonality of a multitude of proud Black Americana: barely surviving the hood, then missing aspects of it after you know you won’t backslide there.  

When they started to blow up nationally, there was no easy direct analogue to OutKast. Years after their final album “together” and a few doomed imitators, there still hasn’t been one that could rack up five mics. It works simply like this: being unique is the move, and being unique and great means that the mountain will end up coming to you. Already ascendant, OutKast took the means of their production and jettisoned everyone they “should” have measured themselves against in order to emulate greats that’d earned their stamp of approval. It turned out to be the move that secured their legacy—plenty of their then peers get noosed with the question “Hey, do you remember _______________________”, but no one who’s heard the power music and electric revival on display in Stankonia would ever forget the prides of College Park, two of the best to ever, forever ever, forever ever hold the microphone like a grudge.


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