Thirty years ago, Sly Stone released an album called There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which contained a song called “Poet.” “My only weapon,” Stone sang, “is my pen … I’m a songwriter/ A poet.” Stone’s voice was full of despair. He stretched the words out until “pen” became “pain,” and “songwriter” turned into “soul rider.” The effect was simple but devastating. White audiences, who’d admired Stone as a symbol of integration and black empowerment, had no idea what to think, and contemporary critics dismissed the record as pretentious. Stone responded by slipping further into his addictions, and soon unraveled completely. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is now considered Stone’s best work—a real masterpiece.
But with the rise of gangsta rap, which finally propelled black misery to the top of the charts, a new trap revealed itself: When authenticity is everything, musical evolution is actively discouraged. In hip-hop, the beats have grown steadily junkier, and the wit and dexterity of a rapper’s flow matter much less than his street credibility. “I’m not a rapper,” the nation’s top rapper, Jay-Z, informs his fans in a typical aside. “I’m a hustler/ It just so happens I can rap.” But Jay-Z’s continued success is an anomaly; more representative is the career of Dr. Dre, who kick-started gangsta rap in 1992 with his album The Chronic. His 1996 follow-up, The Aftermath, went easy on the gangsta stylings and showcased his work as a producer (he’s the best in the business). The record flopped. So he put out Chronic 2001, which returned to the virtues of throat-slitting, drug-dealing, and pimping. It sold well into the millions and was heralded as a return to form. Given this musical climate, the very existence of a group like OutKast—an Atlanta duo that released its greatest hits compilation earlier this month—is more than an anomaly; it’s something of a miracle.
OutKast’s Big Boi (aka Daddy Fat Sax, aka Antwon Patton) and Dre (aka Andre 3000, aka Andre Benjamin) first got together in their early teens, after trying to best one another in a local cutting contest. They released their first single, “Players Ball,” in the winter of 1993, while Big Boi was still a high-school student and Dre a recent dropout. The song, about a New-Year’s-party-cum-pimp’s-convention, was a monster hit, and for good reason. It was backed by live instruments, which gave the song elasticity and warmth. The groove was deep, funky, and Southern-fried; the lyrics gritty and descriptive without being dumb or exploitative—perhaps because they really had run the streets, Dre and Big Boi saw no reason to wallow in the gutter. Most important, they were serious musicians: They could sing without straining, and their delivery was unlike anything anyone had heard before.
But if the delivery—which combines smooth Southern drawls with sharp, staccato phrasings, and marks all OutKast’s subsequent records (click here for a sample)—was unique, it was hardly the only thing that set the group apart. Never having entered rap’s authenticity sweepstakes or based their identities on anything but their abilities, Dre and Big Boi found themselves free to evolve in ways other groups couldn’t and soak up influences others ignored. They could sound like Marvin Gaye one minute, Dr. Dre the next, shift effortlessly between the two, and still sound unmistakably like themselves. On their second release, ATLiens, the beats were slower and jazzier and occasionally dropped out entirely while the rappers’ voices soared over the gap. On their next two records, Aquemini, and Stankonia, OutKast took over production duties, expanded their palate to include acoustic guitars and harmonicas on the one hand and dense, techno-inspired textures on the other, and sharpened and quickened their delivery almost to the point of scat-singing (albeit with syllables that made sense on the page; here’s a clip).
Nor were the group’s lyrics typical: They tend to shy away from the misogyny and violence rap is so often (and not always unjustly) condemned for. On Stankonia, OutKast assured their “baby mama’s mama” that they’ll be present for a grandchild’s ” first day of school/ and graduation,” sang about the importance of a woman’s orgasm, and presented their commonsensical take on foreign policy issues (“Don’t pull the thang out,” it went, “Unless you plan to bang/ Don’t even bang unless you want to hit something/ Bombs over Baghdad”). And those were just the singles.
Dre and Big Boi don’t belabor their politics, but neither do they shy away from speaking their mind; moments of rage do flash through their records. One of my favorite songs, “Gasoline Dreams,” complains of “Youth full of fire/ And nowhere to go,” and builds to furious chorus—“Does everybody like the smell of gasoline?/ Well burn motherfucker, burn American dream”—that I can barely listen to in the wake of 9/11. But OutKast’s fury is matched with a professionalism few rappers have rivaled, and each supports and legitimizes the other. In a musical genre that’s dark and disturbed, OutKast shines with sincerity: “I extend myself,” Dre raps, “So you go out and tell a friend.” It may be the simplest, purest, and most succinct, game plan any rapper has put forth. Sly Stone, who walked through days of rage armed with nothing more than a pen, would have appreciated it.