Photo by Michael Lavine

The video for OutKast’s hit single, “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad),” opens with Dre (a.k.a. Andre 3000), hip-hop’s most doggedly nonconformist — therefore
unlikeliest, perhaps most potent — sex symbol, lying sprawled on a bed, torso rippling and shirtless, his processed ’do falling just above his shoulders, polyester pimp pants hugging his slim hips. As the track’s ferocious beats kick in, Dre takes off running through a housing project, jumping over concrete fences, tumbling down a hill. But these projects are absolutely surreal: The colors are so bright they pop off the screen; the grass is thick and lush — hell, there is grass (albeit purple). This ghetto compound is shot and framed to resemble a gorgeous resort; there’s none of the broken glass, gang symbols, barking pit bulls or glaring ruffnecks that have collapsed inner-city life to video clichés.

The point of the video isn’t to fetishize or candy-coat poverty or despair. Its message is more radical than that: Everyday black people populate this cartoon-overhauled reality; they are what is being celebrated. As Dre flees the ’hood, he runs through a polished housing tract, his ghetto peeps right behind him — their slumadelic pied piper. When Dre’s first verse ends, OutKast’s other half, Big Boi, along with OutKast protégé Slimm Calhoun and members of Goodie Mob, steer us toward a more traditional b-boy fantasy: bouncing pimp-mobile, blaring car speakers and a few James Bond–style stunts.

The seamless stitch of artsy aesthetics and playa poses — each element drawn in race consciousness, simmered in (under)class consciousness — is what makes OutKast hip-hop’s great black hope, not an inconsequential thing to be in this MTV/TRL era of shuck & jive Negroes and cultural appropriation. From their very first album, 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the Atlanta-based duo have done a nimble balancing act, complementing one another while creating a union by which they celebrate 360 degrees of black maleness. Big Boi is the erryday homeboy, brain on information overload, clad in pure street style and sensibility. Affectation is Dre’s natural stance. He uses artifice (oversize blond wigs, outlandish stage costumes) to divine truth, effortlessly spinning off on some “next” shit. Dre is almost scary in his gloriousness, in his awareness of it. His innate but stylized “otherness” makes him sexy and deeply sexual, with a blazing intelligence and not-so-quiet rage roiling his rhymes.

Dre’s the point of connection for many OutKast fans because he’s the one walking a tightrope, making him a rap rarity that both lays hold to the pop charts and jazzes undaground heads. But America is especially cruel to her Negro eccentrics, with black folk often leading the charge, fueled by timidity and what-will-massa-think conservatism. (Hip-hop, by the way, hasn’t done that much to cure the syndrome of Negro Reflexive Cowardice.) We watch Dre in awe and nervousness. Big Boi is the stable compound, the familiar; Dre is the unpredictable one that renders the composition volatile.

Greg Tate recently wrote that “American racial identity is less a thing to be contemplated than performed — not to mention paraded, primped, politicked and prostituted, as loudly and wrongly as possible in civic space.” That statement is gnarled in meaning, but it’s saying, in part, that blackness has been reduced to a metaphor for someone else’s angst, alienation, or crappy day at school or work. And Negroes in the rap game are cashing in by playing dumb and dumber with disheartening glee, flattening out their own reality in order to be bought. OutKast, though, know how to play with surfaces and humor while keeping their fingers dug deep in the blood, sweat and shit of modern-day blackness. They pump the metaphor back up to real-life dimensions, finessing stereotypes and unmasking truths. So the duo’s “country” accents are proudly flung, complete with regional slang and pronunciation, but serving poetry and Negrocentric politics that shatter preconceptions of the hick or ’bama. The divide between ’hood rat and intellectual is proved to be false, contrived and bridgeable — as is the split between Negro bohemian and ghetto denizen.

Stankonia (LaFace/Arista), OutKast’s latest opus, is not just a rap album; it’s a genuine hip-hop artifact. That means it’s music, philosophy and unbound sexual heat —
vision and politics wrought in human terms. It’s also funky as hell, full of blazing guitar licks, electro-burps and assaultive beats. The collection re-contextualizes far-flung culture shards, reminding us of their blackness (a nod to Hendrix here, a stroke of Detroit techno there) and connecting them to one another. (In terms of production and musical roots, “B.O.B.” is simply booty music on steroids, which is also why it’s the front-runner candidate for single of the year.)

But despite having made a record deeply nuanced in its unabashed reclaiming of rap music and hip-hop culture, Dre and Big Boi pointedly avoid self-righteous posturing — they’re not willing to toss black folk overboard as their art ascends. On the track “Gasoline Dreams,” Dre raps, “All of my heroes did dope, every nigga ’round me/Playin’ married or payin’ child support . . .” And from “Humble Mumble,” he drops, “I met a critic, I made her shit her draws/She said she thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol/I said, ‘Oh hell naw!’ but yet it’s that too/You can’t discrimahate because you done read a book or two . . .” At the same time, the team calls out mindless ballers and shot-callers. On “Red Velvet,” Big Boi intones, “Ball if you want to, but do it with some class, G . . . Prioritize and tell these other niggaz how you/Brought your kid some tennis shoes/Let these brothers know that your mama she got her house too . . . Do this here and keep that bullshit out of our ear . . .”

George Clinton–esque in their sci-fi street funk (and in Dre’s sartorial choices), Bill Clinton–esque in their unbridled libido, and armed with their own sharp eyes for too-deep but accessible lyrics, OutKast flip at the drop of a dime from sensitive male (“Ms. Jackson,” “Toilet Tisha”) to wounded soldier to unrepentant dog — sometimes in the same song. The brilliance, for example, of “Ms. Jackson” is that this ode to baby-mamas mamas incisively, and honestly owns up to the male-inflicted pain at the base of so much feminine rage — and then, without diluting that point, gives voice to the indignities heaped upon men
(especially fathers) when relationships go bad. The gendered perspectives conflict but don’t necessarily contradict, meaning no one emerges pure victim or villain, and the knot of human relationships is essayed with an insight rare in modern pop music.

It’s in the duo’s voices and deliveries, though, that Stankonia (like their previous three albums) really takes off — the way each can swivel his flow to sidestep a beat, pause, then drop a rhyme square in the pocket; it’s in the way funk has taken up residence in their Southern drawls, with vowels pulled and stretched like soft taffy, for both humorous and poignant effect; it’s in the playfulness of their R&B falsetto (“I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson/I am for reeeeaaaaalllll . . .”) that is both send-up of and tribute to old-school soul jams. Rap music in the last few years has contracted like a dick caught in an arctic wind. It’s become small and embarrassing, a too-often-impotent tool of show. OutKast have brought back the heat with genuine artistry.

The “B.O.B.” video concludes in a cool fantasy realm of church and juke joint, where big-tittied hoochies bump and grind to the beat-driven, lifting voices of gospel-choir matrons as cornrowed black frat brothers execute step routines with blinding precision. Big Boi and Dre have landed here not just as an escape from the ’hood, but to demonstrate that those who live in urban confines also have dreams and fantasies, vibrant inner lives. This video ghetto is not just a place of pathology and psychosis, but a place that functions as ground zero for a lot of people’s reality — and for a creativity that can be as transcendent, beautiful and resilient as it is stark.

OUTKAST | Stankonia | (LaFace/Arista)

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