(This article is the first in a series that will examine seminal albums released a decade ago and attempt to reevaluate their impact and significance through the lens of history.)
It was the year 2000 – Halloween, to be precise – and the world of hip hop was at a turning point. Eminem had dominated record sales for most of that year thanks to the 10 million copies of The Marshall Mathers LP that flew out the door at a never-before-seen pace. At the other end of the spectrum, party maven Nelly had dropped Country Grammar, an album that would make him a household name and give him a brief pass into the world of rap stardom.
That fateful fall day, however, would see another record birthed into the world that would straddle the line between hip hop purity, exuberant crowd-moving joy and deep personal introspection. Outkast’s Stankonia was perhaps one of the most important rap albums to be released at the dawn of the new millennium, and it would in many ways serve as a dividing line between what was suddenly old and what was about to become new.
That it has been a full decade since the tracks from Stankonia ruled both the airwaves and the video charts seems hard to believe. This was the record that took Outkast from hip hop heroes to pop phenomenon, achieving for them even greater fame than they had been able to find with their previous crossover success, Rosa Parks. It also served to more blatantly display the eccentricities and willingness to explore new territory that would eventually dominate Outkast’s musical production for the rest of the decade. Stankonia might not have completely prepared us for the shock that was Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but at least we had been warned.
It was on Stankonia that Big Boi and André 3000 took the opportunity to stretch their wings and deliver a raft of tunes that hewed to no previously established musical order. World beat shared groove space with rock-tinged beats, funk and jazzy slow jams. Tying it all together was rhyme delivery from each of Outkast’s pair of supremely gifted lyricists that swung back and forth between smooth and frenetic. This was intelligent music that aimed its salvo far above the partyheads and successploitation artists that were starting to dominate the charts, rap that didn’t cater to gritty street tales but instead touched on subjects both ethereal and substantial that when taken together formed a cohesive, 360-degree Outkast worldview.
Stankonia was also an album that introduced two enormously different yet extraordinarily influential singles. The first was B.O.B. which engaged the ear with the inviting jingle of synthesized chimes before launching a full on breakbeat assault that stole liberally from both the headlines (the Iraq war) and the lives of Dre and Big Boi. The song’s power was undeniable, and it was so different from anything else currently spinning on hip hop radio – especially with its gospel-influenced ‘bombs over Baghdad’ chorus – that it instantly separated itself from the hip hop fray and has over time helped to make the group as accessible to newcomers as it was indispensable to hardened rap soldiers.
The second single, and the one that put Outkast over on the crossover crowd was the pop masterpiece Ms. Jackson, an intimate entreaty to the mother of André 3000’s baby momma Erykah Badu. Marital strife, the strain of deciding custody issues and the overbearing presence of the in-laws are all boiled down to simple poetry that makes it impossible not to extend a hand in friendship to Dre’s beleaguered narrator. The fact that every word he said was true – or at least, a version of the truth – has added poignancy to the song that reverberates through the years.
In the 10 years since this seminal rap recording was made the hip hop genre has become so twisted and disfigured as to be almost unrecognizable. There are, however, a few clear signs as to the impact that Stankonia had on the industry as a whole and on Outkast in particular. While it did not light up the charts initially, the success of Ms. Jackson as a single and the ensuing popularity of Outkast as a cultural phenomenon allowed the duo to gain both the confidence and the clout needed to go forward with their extremely ambitious double album only three years later. Outkast’s use of local Atlanta talent and un-selfconscious promotion of southern rap as a viable fountainhead of nationally marketable music also help to uncap the wellspring of acts that were signed below the Mason-Dixon Line over the course of the ensuing decade.
Stankonia also serves another purpose ten years past its drop date. It is very difficult to search out and discover a hip hop record in 2010 that manages to speak with the same immediacy, smoothness and substance as Stankonia did while avoiding the pretense, overproduction and trend-hopping that has become a hallmark of this increasingly confused and diluted genre. With Stankonia, Outkast may have put together the last of the accessibly strange yet undeniably powerful rap efforts. In a subculture where grandiosity has become a prepackaged dance routine with very clearly defined career steps and sound palettes, high concept efforts have increasingly begun to seem like copies of a copy of a copy. Stankonia was the final original brick in traditional hip hop’s foundation.