“Everyone who knows, knows Outkast.”
I’ve always thought of Outkast to be a tried and true litmus test artist. Someone who loves Outkast is almost guaranteed to be awesome, or at least knowledgeable in what constitutes great hip-hop. Artists like these are difficult to find: they have to have an undeniably high level of music quality but also a certain degree of experimentation that creates a barrier of entry or gatekeeping. Being just a good artist doesn’t cut it, it has to be the right kind of good. Liking the Beatles doesn’t indicate anything about someone. But liking Outkast… this guy gets it.
Outkast is special for a lot of reasons, but I think it ultimately comes down to one word: Versatility. Outkast can be smooth, sexy, clever, funny, tough, intelligent, all effortlessly and it all sounds fantastic. They’re extremely skilled both technically and stylistically. They have the sheer rap talent to hang with any old head rapper and they have the fleeting intangibles that the new kids have. Everything about their sound, execution, and aesthetic is top tier, which is why they manage to seamlessly transcend generation. Everyone who knows, knows Outkast. No one has ever done it that well and looked so damn good doing it.
TOP TRACKS FOR OUTKAST
For organizational purposes, the Outkast catalogue can be generally cut in half, with the first three albums revolving around more traditional nineties hip-hop from the southern context, while the latter leg shows bolder experimentation and a transition into pop superstardom. Both sides of the Outkast coin are fantastic, and you’ll get the best balance with Aquemini, their 1998 masterpiece that marks the duo truly beginning to ascend into the musical stratosphere.
Big Boi is an Aquarius, Andre 3000 is a Gemini, and together they are Aquemini.
This thing is a boldly unapologetic Atlanta masterpiece, with bouncing beats, super catchy hooks, and some truly captivating storytelling. Aquemini really brings the best out of both rappers, who sing, spit, hum, croon, and flow in more ways than you can count, front to back. There’s never a dull moment on this album and it has something for everyone. My personal favorite is the sexy as hell “Spottieottiedopalicious,” but some other highlights are the southern hoedown inspired “Rosa Parks,” and the legendary “Slump,” which you might remember from that scene in Neighbors. Yes, the Seth Rogen Zac Efron movie. THAT’s how big Outkast is.
Next, check out Stankonia. It’s a huge moment for the group, where they truly realized themselves as pop heavyweights, all without compromising their cutting edge sound. There will be some familiar tunes on here to get you through the long runtime (“So Fresh, So Clean,” “Mrs. Jackson,” “Roses,”) along with some of the most inventive hip-hop crossovers in music history. It’s really amazing how far Outkast can take this thing. Stankonia is dripping with eccentricities, with wild beats, funny skits, and truly staggering delivery. My favorite track here is undoubtedly “Humble Mumble” with Andre’s ex lover Erykah Badu, but “Call B4 I Cum,” and “Bombs Over Baghdad” are amazing too. Consider this album’s popularity during the year of our lord 2000, and it becomes truly baffling just how they pulled it off.
While this middle stretch of the Outkast timeline is by far the strongest, there’s also some legendary material in the albums that exist right outside of it. Next you should go to either ATLiens or Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, depending on which you enjoyed the most of the first two. If Aquemini was more your speed, definitely check out ATLiens. It’s a classic hip-hop album that still shows fun tinges of the wild experimentation to come later. It’s not out of this world, but it is still covered with that signature Atlanta personality and it delivers some really strong old head hip-hop. Some Outkast purists claim this side of the group to be the best, and for good reason. It’s excellent, and it has “Elevators” and the title track, two of the most legendary Outkast songs EVER. Any fans of the “rapper” element of the duo should absolutely go for this.
If you’re leaning towards the newer stuff, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will be a fascinating next step. It comes in a strange place for the duo, as it’s the last great Outkast album but it’s ironically not made with the both of them together. It’s a double album split in half, with Big Boi performing all of Speakerboxxx and Andre performing all of The Love Below. With virtually no collaboration, it’s effectively two solo albums presented together as Outkast. Politics and semantics aside, this two hour project is a really entertaining listen. While Big Boi delivers pure club bangers and a love letter to Atlanta club culture, Andre comes through with a sensual, intimate, ode to romance. The versatility is impressive to say the least, and I still can’t decide my favorite, but if I had to I’d give it to Big Boi by a hair. “Ghetto Musik” and “Unhappy” are just absolute bangers, and that doesn’t even include his smash hit “The Way You Move.” Andre’s side is incredible though, with the highlight being undoubtedly the cerebral recounting of his time with Erykah with “A Life in the Day of Andre Benjamin.”
With these four albums you’ve covered most of the core of the brilliance of Outkast, but if you want more, absolutely go with Southernplayalistic, the debut. It’s much more raw and stripped down than the rest of the catalogue, making it fascinating to hear given how far they’ve come. Though it does lack the signature Outkast flair and experimentation, it’s still wildly infectious and has some classic Goodie Mob collaborations.
“Musically and aesthetically, we would be nowhere today without Outkast.”
As far as Idlewild goes, it’s largely regarded as the weakest of the discography. I generally stay away from it not because it lacks compelling moments but because it fully lacks any cohesion. Despite being a soundtrack to a movie, the duo really struggle to find a common theme or aesthetic. It’s clear that both members were generally one foot out the door by the time this one came around. I mean, they didn’t even really work together on the album before, so it’s not too shocking. Still though, it’s an Outkast album, so there’s some fantastic and charming ideas to cling to. This one might be the kind of album that you skim, then save your favorite select tracks.
Strangely enough, the six Outkast albums aren’t always able to fully do it for me. If this comes up for you, there’s some brilliant material in Andre and Big Boi’s solo work. Big Boi has plenty of albums on his own, with the standout being Sir Lucious Left Foot. That one should be checked out if you’re a fan of hip-hop, period. It’s an excellently eclectic collection of catchy rap songs. Andre is a little bit more elusive, though, as you’ll have to sift through his features to get your fix. But make no mistake, Andre 3000 is the absolute KING of features. He’s pretty much always the best feature on any album he chooses to be on, with some notable collaborations with Kid Cudi, James Blake, Frank Ocean, and of course the incomparable miss Erykah Badu.
As you learn more about Outkast and their incredibly specific place in hip-hop, you’ll begin to see just how crucial they are to the genre today.
They are the original “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” and their influence is arguably more prominent than any other duo in rap history. Musically and aesthetically, we would be nowhere today without Outkast; they broke down creative barriers that we really take for granted. Hell, who knows if the modern rap utopia of Atlanta would be thriving to this degree if Andre and Big Boi didn’t put it on the map back in the 90s. Such a timeline isn’t even worth entertaining.
If you liked this piece, be sure to check out last month’s “The Poser’s Guide To Prince” here.