Hey Ya! The Return of Outkast

(This post originally appeared on Sabotage Times)

On Thursday 9th January, we all woke up to a world that was better than the one we fell asleep in. This year’s Coachella line-up revealed that after ten long years, OutKast were finally back. André 3000 and Big Boi were really returning for their first performance together in a decade.

Plans for a 40-date worldwide tour were unveiled shortly after, and UK appearances at Wireless and Bestival have now been confirmed. Here’s why the OutKast comeback is a big deal…

There are those who think that Kanye West is too arrogant, or that Eminem is too graphic, or Jay Z too materialistic, and yet OutKast seem to be universally adored. They occupy that sweet spot between the weird and the mainstream, the rap group loved by people who don’t like rap music, the avant-garde pioneers with better rhymes than anyone claiming “real hip-hop”.

The Grammys are often criticised for being out of touch with public opinion, but occasionally they do get it right. When OutKast won Album of the Year at the 2004 Grammys for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, it was fully deserved, the culmination of a decade of sustained brilliance.

After releasing their first batch of inimitable Southern-fried hip-hop as precocious teens, the duo added new flavours to each subsequent release – see the otherworldly atmosphere that pervades ATLiens, the rich musicality of Aquemini, and Stankonia’s melting pot of wild creativity. That ability to continually reinvent themselves saw them emerge as one of the most exciting acts anywhere in music.

Their unconventional production and sharp lyrics – “you talk about bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed, let’s talk about time travellin’, rhyme javelin, something mind unravellin’” took hip-hop to places it had never travelled before and their influence can still be heard throughout the current music scene.

Despite hailing from Compton, rather than Atlanta, Kendrick Lamar’s beguiling cocktail of hood tales and existential musing mark him out as an OutKast disciple. Kendrick’s “The Art of Peer Pressure”, with its foreboding, cavernous soundscape and his measured flow, could have come straight from ATLiens.

You can hear traces of their DNA in Janelle Monáe’s refusal to be categorised, in Big K.R.I.T.’s reflections on the African-American experience, and Future’s desire to take us to distant galaxies, whilst B.o.B. can come across as an André 3000 tribute act, without any of the ingenuity or charisma.

They came up during an era when gangsta rap was still a thing, a time when wearing a t-shirt or jeans that actually fitted properly could be met with suspicion. André still dressed like life was a never-ending fancy-dress party (here he is in a kimono, furry pink trousers, and as a Pharoah). When people questioned him, he responded with one of the most scathing verses ever recorded on “Return of the G”. The message was clear: it didn’t matter how he dressed, he still rapped better than everyone else. He proved there was room for artists who didn’t adhere to the genre’s norms. Shout out to Kanye, Drake, and Lil B.

In addition to their cultural impact, the chart success of “Ms. Jackson”, then Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, turned them into stars. As well as winning three Grammys, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below spawned the ubiquitous singles “Hey Ya!”, “Roses”, and “The Way You Move”, and is still the top selling rap album of all time in the U.S.

The group’s appeal was built on the contrasting personalities within; Big Boi provided the street-level foundation for 3000’s soaring eccentricity. Creative differences saw Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dispense with that dynamic, and with 3000 becoming increasingly disillusioned with life in the spotlight, the group was left in limbo.

Their most recent performance together was at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards. Tragically, “Hey Ya!” has never been performed outside of an award ceremony. If nothing else, that alone makes their comeback worth it.

The last official OutKast release was 2006’s Idlewild, the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Again, they barely featured together and, with a few exceptions, it lacked the inventive spark that defined their previous work. It’s essentially a footnote at the end of their legacy.

Obviously, nostalgia plays a part in yearning for their return, but there’s much more to it than that – one of the great frustrations of the last decade is that whilst both members have continued to release music, it hasn’t been with each other.

Big Boi has released two superb solo albums, bursting with ideas and rock-solid raps. 3000 comes out of hiding every now and then to star in a shaving commercial or bless humanity with another stunning guest verse.

On the all-too-rare occasions that they have been on the same track since Idlewild – “International Player’s Anthem”, “The Art of Storytellin’ part 4”, “Royal Flush” and “Lookin’ 4 Ya” – the results have been spectacular, demonstrating that the chemistry is still intact and only making fans even more desperate for a proper return.

Big Boi, who had never wanted OutKast to stop in the first place, was always clear about his desire to reform. André, until this recent announcement, had been much less enthusiastic (and then there was the whole “Pink Matter” debacle last year). I’d resigned myself to the fact it probably wasn’t ever going to happen a long time ago, like seeing Cesc Fabregas back at Arsenal or marrying Mila Kunis.

When the Coachella line-up was revealed, I checked the price of tickets and flights, then my bank balance, before cursing the injustice of it all. Thankfully, the world tour was announced before I’d sold one of my kidneys. Smartly, OutKast will appear on the final day of Wireless’ London event. Coachella have them closing the very first day, making the rest of the festival completely irrelevant.

Their set would need to be about four hours long to fit in all the songs I’ve been longing to see. Imagine the hyperactive “GhettoMusick” or “Git Up, Git Out’s” hypnotic sorcery in a live setting. “B.O.B”, memorably described by Pitchfork as “the only song murderous enough to one-up England’s the Prodigy and appeal to fans of Prodigy from Queensbridge”, is a legitimate health and safety concern. Will anything in life matter after finally hearing the warm, intoxicating horns of “SpottieOttieDopalisicous” performed by a live band?

Of course, there is still the very real fear that it could all go horribly wrong, that the gruelling tour schedule and intense media attention will be too much for 3000. It won’t pose a problem for Big Boi, who’s been on the road constantly, but it’s expecting a hell of a lot from someone who’s notoriously averse to fame.

Assuming it all goes well (and I get hold of Wireless or Bestival tickets, ideally both), we’re in for a show that will live on in our hearts and minds forever, forever ever. There’s even talk of new OutKast music, and this time it might actually happen. What a time to be alive.


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