The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CLASSIC ’00s: Outkast – ‘Stankonia’

As the new millennium dawned, Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Outkast were in a very unusual position. They had emerged not only as one of the most acclaimed auteurs in their genre, selling a million copies of each of their first three studio albums and receiving glowing reviews from all quarters. However, their profile outside the United States was comparatively low, and they had not made any kind of calling-card track that would help them break international markets, or the kind of radio song that would ensure blanket coverage to reach outside of their existing fanbase, however big it was. In short, they lacked a hit. That would all change with their fourth album, Stankonia, released in the autumn of 2000 and which propelled them to global superstardom.

Entering the studio in the spring of 1999, Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton looked at the landscape of hip-hop at the end of the decade, and felt that it was too complacent, relying on gangsta-rap cliché and increasingly stale tricks in the case all but a few exceptions. “Hip-hop is real comfortable right now,” Benjamin – a.k.a. Andre 3000 – told New Music at the time. “Everybody’s paid in hip-hop. There’s no struggle. So it’s time to crank it up, put a little more rage back into it.” They sought to inject their established southern hip-hop template with a massively diverse palette of Black music influences, from psychedelic rock to rave music and gospel via more adjacent genres such as soul and funk. In doing so, they hit upon a rare alchemy of creative ingenuity and mass appeal that eludes all but the finest artists.

The most immediately noticeable element of their fourth recordwas how different it sounded to Outkast’s previous albums. Where the likes of their 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and its 1996 successor ATLiens were generally laid-back in terms of their tempos and the duo’s lyrical dispositions, Stankonia was much faster, with Big Boi and Andre 3000 frequently more energised and urgent in both the delivery of their flows and their thematic content. 1998’s kaleidoscopic Aquemini had signposted this to some extent with its huge sonic palette, but nothing like the dimension jump that actually transpired with Stankonia. It was the product of the kind of creative restlessness that normally pulls groups apart, but Outkast was already a broad enough church in sonic terms to absorb the massive influx of ideas.

This well-spring of inspiration was largely (but not exclusively) down to Andre 3000. Opting to work predominantly from his house that he was re-decorating, composing song sketches on an acoustic guitar and painting lyrical ideas on his wall. Eventually moving to the studio to flesh out the songs in a collegiate manner with the album’s guest stars – among them, future Run The Jewels MC Killer Mike on the amusingly lewd ‘Snappin’ & Trappin’’ – Benjamin adopted a speak-singing croon while recording (having grown tired with plain rapping) which contributed greatly to Stankonia’s very different feel to its predecessors.

By comparison, Patton – a.k.a. Big Boi – spent his time more conventionally in the recording studio, but that observation does not denigrate the importance of his contributions here. His more grounded flows not only keep up with his bandmate’s creativity and visions but provide a crucial anchor for them in reality, helping to make Stankonia feel more like a tangible world just within our grasp, rather than some totally out-there fantasy land. Without him, these tracks simply wouldn’t have worked as effectively as they did.

While Aquemini established Outkast as undisputed masters of southern hip-hop, praised for splicing street-level ghetto imagery with psychedelic explorations, Stankonia launched them into the musical stratosphere, placing them miles ahead of practically every other hip-hop artist in 2000. Where the vast majority of mainstream hip-hop was characterised by slow, laid-back tempos, Outkast acknowledged and embraced the influence that rave culture was having upon rap music at the time, the new sounds and faster beats reflecting the growing prevalence of drugs like ecstasy in the scene.

Music video for ‘B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)’

Stankonia’s lead single, ‘B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)’ signalled what was to come. A swirling, clattering firestorm of jackhammering drum’n’bass rhythms, gothic organs, turntable scratches, garbled rap, gospel choirs and psychedelic guitars straight out of a Jimi Hendrix or George Clinton fever dream, it was absolute mayhem, and signalled the headlong charge into experimentation that its parent album represented. ‘B.O.B.’ is a jolt of insane energy that takes several listens to truly digest, just because there’s so much going on in the mix, but the deft production means it never feels cluttered. But for all its bleeding-edge brilliance, and despite a rockier remix from Rage Against The Machine’s Zack De La Rocha that extended the band’s cult fanbase into college radio territory, ‘B.O.B.’ mis-fired in the charts. While it certainly presaged the genre-blind tendency to cross-pollinate styles that has yielded success for so many subsequent artists, it was simply so far ahead of its time that few could truly wrap their heads around it back in 2000.

The album’s next single, however, would strike gold. ‘Ms. Jackson’ remains one of the most recognisable and catchy pop hooks since the turn of the millennium, hitting the top of the American charts and selling millions of copies around the world. At long last, Outkast had the global smash hit that befitted their status as rap innovators. Composed initially on an acoustic guitar, it was a story of a broken family from a father’s perspective, with Andre 3000’s lyrics also doubling up as an open letter to the mother of Erykah Badu, the soul singer with whom he had a son. Given the generally misogynistic and/or materialistic approach to women in a great deal of mainstream hip-hop lyrics at the turn of the millennium, this was a remarkably refreshing and considered approach, and you can hear that echoed throughout the album. On the slow motion funk of ‘Toilet Tisha’, they sympathise with the mental and financial struggles of pregnant teenagers; ‘Slum Beautiful’ holds women in a higher regards than just chattels; ‘I’ll Call B4 I Cum’, with its catchy synth hook, considers the downsides of the booty call; ‘Red Velvet’ skewers the wider materialistic preoccupations of the hip-hop scene.

Music video for ‘Ms. Jackson’

Furthermore, the sense of switched-on, restless playfulness of these two singles seeped into every single second of the rest of Stankonia. From the whirlwind of guitar licks and ticking, boom-bap beats of ‘Gasoline Dreams’, a symbolic bonfire of American myths, no track sounds the same as any other. There’s the (comparatively) straightforward beats and MC’ing of ‘Spaghetti Junction’ and ‘Xplosion’ or the hard-as-nails production of ‘Gangsta Sh*t’ to anchor the record in some kind of reality. However, these moments rub shoulders with the neo-soul stepper of ‘Humble Mumble’, the ravey weirdness of ‘?’ or the slow-burning, minimalist funk of closer ‘Stankonia (Stanklove)’, the album’s final destination with its false ending and slow-as-molasses coda that feels like it’s been beamed in from another dimension.

Listened to altogether, Stankonia was an orgy of sonics, but although it was psychedelic it never tipped into outright drugginess, or weirdness for the sake of it that would have overloaded many listeners. ‘So Fresh, So Clean’, the album’s third and final single, is an indelible earworm of smooth funk and R&B indebted to artists like The Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, and was able to seize radio airplay without throwing up any suspicion that Outkast were selling out. Instead, moments such as scattered throughout Stankonia felt like a natural extension of their existing sound, keeping the entire thing on the side of radio-friendliness even while it was busy pushing back boundaries. Sounds that are normally associated with serious musical aesthetes or hipsters were re-purposed and made totally at home on a multi-million award winner – that was the genius of Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton.

Music video for ‘So Fresh, So Clean’

In the twenty years since its release, Stankonia has been almost a sacred text in terms of its inspiration on today’s most forward-thinking pop, from artists such as Kanye West and Run The Jewels to Janelle Monáe. Not only is it generally acclaimed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, but it’s also (literally) one of the best-reviewed albums in recent history. On the aggregation site Metacritic, averaging out both formal critical reviews and the opinions of listeners generally, Stankonia holds an average of 95 out of 100, one of only a dozen albums to attain a score of 95% or higher in the site’s 21-year history. Edged out bizarrely by the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? for Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammys, it did win Best Rap Album that year, and helped to kick-start an admittedly slow and gradual process of hip-hop receiving more attention from the industry mainstream, particularly in awards season. Although it was kept off the top of the US Billboard 200 by Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, Outkast shifted over half a million copies of Stankonia in its first week alone, and to date it has sold over four million units in the States alone. No longer were Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton merely the critics’ darlings – they were elevated to rap royalty. Simultaneously, southern hip-hop emerged as an entirely credible artistic and commercial force to interrupt the East-West Coast dichotomy.

But for Outkast themselves, Stankonia represented the beginning of an artistic divergence that would spell their end within the next decade. While it still sold several million copies across the world, spawning several huge singles including ‘Hey Ya!’ and wowing the critics yet again, 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a double album blowout that saw Big Boi and Andre 3000 take an entire side each. The stylistic differences between them told you everything you needed to know – Big Boi’s gritty, street-level flows (as compelling as they were) were so incompatible that Andre 3000’s increasingly ambitious musical visions had to be housed somewhere else for any of it to make sense. By the time they released the film/album project Idlewild in 2006, they had to all intents and purposes grown apart, and the chemistry wasn’t truly there.

The following year, Outkast went on hiatus and, while there was a clutch of reunion festival appearances in 2014, no new music has ever been forthcoming. A sad end for one of the most inventive groups that the entire pop universe has known over the last thirty years, but their legacy is formed of half a dozen of the most inventive albums in recent memory. Stankonia is, by common acknowledgment, the very best of these.

Listen to Stankonia by Outkast here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

Influenced by: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, The Isley Brothers, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament / Funkadelic, Prince, Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Dr Dre, The Pharcyde, Wu-Tang Clan

Influenced: Gorillaz, Nelly, N.E.R.D, Kanye West, Gnarls Barkley, Clipse, Freddie Gibbs, Madvillain, Janelle Monáe, Beyonce, Drake, Shabazz Palaces, Odd Future, Chance The Rapper, Run The Jewels, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Childish Gambino, ScHoolboy Q, Danny Brown, J. Cole, Open Mike Eagle

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