I grew up in South Florida, so I grew up knowing artists like 2 Live Crew and Luther Campbell. When I was young, they were the most famous hip-hop acts to come out of Miami. Besides The Geto Boys, they were probably the most famous acts to come from south of the Mason-Dixon in general. By the time I was a pre-teen, though, Southern rap was blowing up big time. I remember winning an eighth grade spelling bee specifically because my final opponent misspelled the word “ludicrous” because of Ludacris.
About a year before that, OutKast’s Stankonia became the second album to truly blow my mind (the first was David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). I obviously knew what rap was and what it sounded like, but, until that day, I never thought it could sound like that. Stankonia is an album with only four samples on the entire thing. From the start, you’re thrown into the sounds of electric guitars and organic percussion. I wasn’t used to hearing that. I wasn’t used to the presence of “real” instruments on track after track after track. But it wasn’t just that, though, it was the flawless integration of horns, drums, and melodic vocals with electronic beats and drum machines that really got me hooked.
Aquemini is often named as OutKast’s best album, but I think people just say that because Aquemini popularized a lot of things that were unpopular in hip-hop at the time: organic beats, the use of horns and other big band instruments, and psychedelic melodies. But, besides the obvious reasons, Stankonia is special simply because of the range of influences Big Boi and Andre 3000 channel in their songs. The album begins in a swirl of hard rock-influenced electric guitars and travels through almost every genre—including funk, afrobeat, drum and bass, psychedelic rock, and soul—by the time the album ends.
Big Boi and Andre 3000 have often labeled themselves as “a player and a poet”, which has certainly become more than apparent over the years. Most of Big Boi’s contributions focus on women, violence, and money, while Andre 3000’s focus on love, loss, and everything in between. They’re both equally important, though, and their different priorities give their songs a dynamic you seldom see anywhere else. In a lot of ways, Big Boi and Andre 3000 represent two sides of one man, which is why this album works so well. When I want something abrasive and aggressive, I generally listen to G-funk and when I want something a little softer on the edges, I’ll go for something from the Native Tongues Posse. On Stankonia, you get the perfect middle-ground of these two completely different kinds of hip-hop and that is part of what makes OutKast appealing.
Stankonia features songs like “Ms. Jackson”—a song written by Andre 3000 as an apology and declaration to the mother of his real-life ex-girlfriend and mother to his son, Erykah Badu—followed by “Snappin’ & Trappin’”—a song about battling other rappers, fucking women, and making money. While that seems completely schizophrenic (it kind of is, actually), OutKast manages to transition from one to the next without the transition even being somewhat noticeable.
Most, if not all, of the lyrics on Stankonia are smooth and simple without sounding cliché. “Spaghetti Junction”—an ode to Atlanta named for the nickname used to describe Atlanta’s confusing series of interstates and highways—incorporates the kind of metaphors you’d only expect to see in some of the best and most beloved poems. Then, there’s “I’ll Call Before I Come”, a fairly straight forward song about setting up “booty calls” and one of my favorites on this album, that compares being a good lover to having fresh, new shoes and kicking a drug addiction. Those are some interesting and out-there analogies, even for two accomplished MCs.
On top of all of that, Stankonia is a true piece of art. It delicately balances different genres, production techniques, instruments, and some of the greatest lyrics I’ve ever heard to create an almost flawless album that’s entertaining and thought-provoking. Big Boi and Andre 3000 aren’t just MCs with a few stories to tell. They’re true musicians with an ear for great compositions and the wit for great rhymes.