A Masterful Discography: OutKast
Almost twenty years since they last released an album, OutKast remain one of the most revered groups in rap history. With only six albums to their name, the Southern duo have crafted one of the most forward-thinking, eclectic, and consistent catalogues, not just in hip hop, but in music generally. From their funky debut to the mesmerising bizarreness of Stankonia to the pop rap landmark that is The Love Below, their discography is rich in historical significance and brimming with classic tracks.
In the same year Nas released Illmatic and Biggie Smalls debuted with Ready to Die, Andre 3000 and Big Boi united to drop their first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Full of funky basslines, smooth percussion, and equally smooth verses, the record is as sonically rich and immersive as the funk albums the group were inspired by. Andre and Big Boi have incredible chemistry, and though their verses don’t quite match the lyrical perfection of their future projects, the duo never fail to entertain. “Call of da Wild” is an instant favourite of mine: OutKast are joined by Goodie Mob for a posse cut all about the street life, flexing their swaggering flows over a relatively minimal beat, with little more than a drum loop and the odd blaring horn to support the rappers. “Hootie Hoo” is another obvious highlight – from its infectious bassline to the earworm hook, the simple weed-smoking anthem is made unforgettable thanks to the natural chemistry between Dre and Big. The more soulful cuts like the soothing “Crumblin’ Erb” or the dramatic title track dive deep into the group’s inspirations, coming off almost like relaxed R&B tracks rather than traditional hip hop. While the lyrics don’t always impress and there are too many interludes for my liking, as a whole, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is a brilliant album that set a golden standard for OutKast from the very beginning.
Two years later, OutKast returned with their sophomore effort, ATLiens. Much of the record’s creation came after the 1995 Source Awards, a historical moment for hip hop where OutKast were booed for winning the award for Best New Rap Group, only for Andre 3000 to stand up for his region and tell the East and West Coasts that “the South got something to say.” That moment was the catalyst for the South to become a legitimate force in rap music, and ATLiens was that message in musical form. With constant allusions to extraterrestrial life and themes of isolation, on ATLiens, OutKast frame themselves as aliens in the culture, viewed as unwanted figures in a genre dominated by New Yorkers and Californians. However, in classic OutKast fashion, the title is double entendre, perhaps referring to themselves not as MCs in an alien culture, but as MCs with otherworldly talent on the microphone. They show off that talent track after track on ATLiens, delivering intricately crafted stanzas of rhyme crammed with complex metaphors and genius play on words. Besides the duo’s performance, the production is also a step up from their debut. Instead of a warm blend of funk and soul, ATLiens creates a spacious, frigid soundscape in which silence is used like an instrument to add depth and atmosphere to every song. From the isolated, echoing percussion on “Elevators” to the melancholic piano playing throughout the closer “13th Floor”, the album is full of these more ambient moments, stripping back the instrumentals to add prominence to the genius lyricism on display.
Outdoing themselves once again, Aquemini is, in my opinion, OutKast’s finest work. Unlike on their first second albums where I felt Andre’s more articulate delivery and poetic pen game gave him the upper hand, Big Boi’s limitless slick flows coupled with his genius lyrical touch make him the star of Aquemini. The album has the same expert lyricism as ATLiens, but with a far more diverse sound. The spacious atmosphere is still present on cuts like the title track, but in many places the group creep into new territory, experimenting in country aesthetics with “Rosa Parks”, making heavy use of synths on “Synthesizer”, and weaving electric guitar into the instrumental of “Chonkyfire”. They pull off every new style, always delivering with their tightknit chemistry and stellar verses. “Aquemini” is an obvious standout, where Dre and Big address their own mortality and purpose. The track ends with a phenomenal verse from Andre 3000, where his innate ability to rhyme shines through while he maintains a determined flow. “Mamacita” is the only true low point of the record. From its obnoxious hook to the subpar guest verses to the bare instrumental, the song leaves a lot to be desired, serving as the only blemish in an otherwise flawless album.
There were glimmers of eccentricity throughout Aquemini, but it wasn’t until Stankonia that OutKast fully embraced their strange imagination. The album is a patchwork of colourful ideas – every track is peppered with sizzling synth-lines and abrasive drum patterns, with pitched-down vocals and sudden beat switches popping up all over the project. Stankonia is a melting pot of different genres, with elements of rock, funk, and electronica folded into the hip hop core of the experience. The result is a project so eclectic and unpredictable that the seventy-three minute runtime flies by like a half hour. There are plenty of highlights, but “Humble Mumble” might be my favourite. Big Boi’s buttery flows introduce the song, soon giving way for the hypnotic harmony Erykah Badu and Andre sing on the hook. After that, the track breaks down to a simple bassline and drum pattern, slowly building back up into a swirl of electronic sound as Andre drops one of the catchiest verses of his career. “Bombs Over Baghdad” is an iconic OutKast staple, with all its beat switches, genre-fusions, and memorable lines encapsulating the vibrant brilliance of Stankonia in five short minutes. Even weaker cuts like the slow-paced storytelling of “Toilet Tisha” and the meandering instrumentation of “Slum Beautiful” add to the eccentric experience of the album, with no song unjustified in the tracklist. Andre and Big Boi’s lyrics are still incredible, but lost in the flurry of iridescent sound, it’s the bold production that makes Stankonia a true classic.
In 2003, Andre 3000 made his own solo record, and Big Boi followed suit. Instead of separate releases, the two combined their projects into an ambitious double album whose sides are so starkly different it would not be right to discuss them in the same segment. Big Boi’s album was Speakerboxxx, a fast-paced exercise in electro-funk and pop rap, carrying over the eccentric energy of Stankonia before it. The album kicks off with the incredible “GhettoMuzik” – a synth-lathered rap banger with a hyperactive hook from Andre and some of the fastest flows of Big’s career as he offers a single, phenomenal verse. The momentum keeps going with the melancholic “Unhappy”, followed up by the one-two punch of Sleepy Brown collabs – “Bowtie” and “The Way You Move” – and then comes “The Rooster”, one of my favourite OutKast songs to ever release. The song maintains the unflinching energy of the previous cuts, with an ascending piano laced into the beat to mirror the increasing sense of distress in Big Boi’s verses. After the flawless first leg of the album, however, Speakerboxxx quickly loses steam. Despite having a beat switch halfway through the track, the production on “War” lacks the detail of the songs surrounding it, and the monotonous chorus sounds like a low-effort attempt to fill time until the beat changes. “Knowing” also lacks the punch of the rest of the album, containing these fuzzy layers of percussion that come off as messy rather than intricate. Big Boi’s lyricism is sharp on the project, but the simple themes of romance and family aren’t as captivating as the politics of Stankonia or the self-reflection of Aquemini. Despite its issues, Speakerboxxx is yet another strong addition to OutKast’s catalogue and is, in my opinion, the stronger half of the double album.
The Love Below (2003)
In stark contrast to Speakerboxxx, on The Love Below, Andre strips back the hip hop in favour of funk and R&B. Rapping on just a few select songs, most of the record is composed of lovestruck ballads where the MC tries his hand at singing. Like Speakerboxxx, the first leg of Andre’s album is the strongest. The ten-track run from “The Love Below” down to “Roses” is near impeccable, crammed full of ambitious ideas no other rapper could have pulled off. “She Lives In My Lap” is among my favourites, where Andre’s powerful vocals perfectly encapsulate the anguish of the hedonistic relationship he describes. The excellence of “Hey Ya!” need not be explained – Andre perfects the pop formula with a flawless blend of electronic and acoustic sounds that will never sound outdated. If The Love Below ended at “Roses”, it would undoubtedly be the stronger half of the double album, but unfortunately it drags on for another eleven songs. “Behold a Lady” has interesting ideas, but the execution is lacklustre, with the autotune-smothered chorus and aimless synths in the instrumental feeling monotonous after the first minute. Songs like “Pink & Blue”, “Love In War”, and “She’s Alive” have painfully simple hooks that add to the monotony of the project, and the patient, moody production only adds to the tedium. Thankfully, the momentum picks back up with the closer, “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre”. The expansive, echoing instrumental acts as a simple backdrop to add impact to Andre’s rambled lyrics. He meanders through his entire life, narrating the rise of OutKast and his introduction to Erykah Badu, rapping with a still, almost monotone presence until he’s ran out of experiences to rap about. Filled with ambitious concepts but only using them well half the time, The Love Below is an album whose highlights I would happily listen to any day, but as a whole experience, it’s too inconsistent to revisit.
The sixth and final album from OutKast is undoubtedly their weakest. Andre and Big Boi rarely appear on the same song, instead alternating from track to track, taking turns in the spotlight. A few guests bring excellent performances, like Janelle Monáe on “Call the Law” and Lil Wayne on “Hollywood Divorce”, but they can’t distract from the strange sense of distance between Andre and Big Boi. Even when they do appear together, the magical chemistry of their past albums is gone, awkwardly trading the mic to deliver subpar verses filled with unremarkable bars. None of the colour, imagination, or innovation of OutKast’s finest work is present on Idlewild. Janelle Monáe is the highlight of this soundtrack, bringing some vibrance to an otherwise sterile experience. It ends with “A Bad Note”, a nine-minute build of droning guitar and chattering percussion like an uneventful post-rock song, building to no climax and ending the group’s catalogue, fittingly, on a bad note.
Looking back, while Speakerboxxx/The Love Below had its inconsistencies and Idlewild was a disappointment, the highlights of OutKast’s catalogue more than make up for the group’s missteps. Masterpiece after masterpiece, the forward-thinking, constantly evolving sound of the duo’s style from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below shows a level of versatility, consistency, and innovation few acts in music history could match. While they stumbled a few times in the 2000s, there is no denying that OutKast have one of the most masterful discographies in hip hop history.