OutKast Is Good

America’s greatest rock band thinks hard about virtue.

Look hard at the universe of hip-hop since 1978 and you won’t find a lot of records that say “I’m sorry.” So, when OutKast released the 2000 hit “Ms. Jackson”—in which they apologized to Everymama for making her daughter cry—it was as unexpected as John Grisham spinning on his head. Even nice MCs brag and boast most of the time. (Listen to De La Soul again.) The longer it hung around, the more questions “Ms. Jackson” birthed: Did hip-hop have more to apologize for than other genres? Was “Ms. Jackson” a strike against the misogynist jerks that hip-hop built its reputation on? That pop music built its house on?

Stankonia, “Ms. Jackson” ‘s home, has sold almost 4 million copies to date, twice the number for the previous OutKast album, Aquemini. The new OutKast double CD, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, offers one disc by each member: Antwan “Big Boi” Patton provides OutKast-style hip-hop as we already know it on Speakerboxxx; André Benjamin does anything but on The Love Below. Peak of career, working on tracks separately, huge anticipation = The White Album. The CD will have sold 500,000 copies by the time you read this, making it one of the few quick platinum arrivals in a soggy business year. (The RIAA counts one sale of a two-disc set as two sales, so 500,000 sales of SB/TLB become 1 million, making the title platinum instead of gold.) A friend went to the Virgin Megastore in New York’s Union Square over the weekend and asked how the album was selling. “We have to keep re-stocking the end-caps [racks near the entrance] every 90 minutes or so,” he was told. Whether it continues to sell through Christmas is another story. Is SB/TLB worth buying? Hell, it’s OutKast. It’s better than anything else on your desk. Is it too long? It’s two CDs, so you already knew it was too long. Those are the easy questions.

SB/TLB pivots on the much harder question of “good behavior” proposed by “Ms. Jackson.” African-American culture has a lot of voltage running through this cable. Thanks to hip-hop, the idea of blackness is now inseparable for many people from an idea of realness that equals cynicism, criminal fantasies, and enthused capitalism. The number of Hummers in the video and the gallons of blood in the rhymes are still metrics of credibility.

The African-American community has a specific cross to bear when confronting this “realness,” but everybody has a problem being good. It’s boring. We’ve known this at least since the 19th century, when the Rev. Rowland Hill of Surrey Chapel in London delivered the line often attributed to Martin Luther: “The devil should not have all the best tunes.” Who has the best record collection? Your saintly friend who jogs 10 miles a day and does pro bono work or your annoying slacker friend who tends bar?

OutKast is in a better position than most to bridge what’s virtuous and what’s fun because their hip-hop has always been a vernacular blend. Hip-hop beats have become oddly jingoistic, rejecting sounds and samples that refer to anything outside hip-hop itself. But listen to Stankonia’s “Bombs Over Baghdad.” Is it hip-hop just because it has rapping? The drum beat and the guitar-playing read like rock at 30 paces. And there’s that gospel choir singing the coda. You call it.

André’s work on The Love Below skips the blend mode and goes straight to crush, puree, and vaporize. Fans of crunk, the Southern flavor of hip-hop OutKast helped midwife, will find the ecstatic pop of “Hey Ya!” sacrilegious. Fans of easy-riding anthems like “So Fresh, So Clean” will find position papers like “Happy Valentine’s Day” corny: “When cupid knocks at your door/ you can’t ignore me.” The pop fans who liked “Ms. Jackson” and André’s peacock style will be freaked out by his discussion with God, who is a woman. (Like everyone, André wants to know if God knows any single girls.)

André knows the cultural buttons he’s pushing, so he lays out the dichotomies before anyone else can. On the back cover, he’s a gangsta holding a smoking handgun—but it’s pink. Tough, but tweaked. For the front cover, he poses in front of the Eiffel Tower wearing a red plaid suit and yellow tie, daring you to call him names. (Can the fragrance called Andrégenous be far behind?) The first song, “Love Hater,” capitalizes the sentence: “Everybody needs a glass of water today, to chase the hate away/ You know you’ve got company comin’ over/ So you scrub extra-hard/ And everybody needs somebody to love/ Before it’s too late/ It’s too laaaaaaateee oh/ Don’t nobody wanna grow old alone!” And then he shows his hand: “And everybody need to quit actin’ hard and shit/ Before you get your ass whooped (I’ll slap the fuck out ya!).” See? We can trust André to be good but not a goody-goody.

André’s similarity to Prince has been widely noted. (“She Lives in My Lap“ is basically a remake of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from Sign ‘O’ the Times). But after Prince became his own boss and retreated deep into Paisley Park, he lost his sense of humor. André’s has never been stronger. The Love Below is one of the only hip-hop albums where the skits are actually worth listening to. The laughs mean he can engage moral questions without making you want to hit him with a wet sock. The video for “Hey Ya!” (which you can watch here) is more witty than hilarious, but it’s spectacularly welcome in an era where rock stars truck in more self-pity than panache. André appears on a mythical English TV show with himself, digitally edited together, playing his own live band. A multiracial crowd, leaning toward white, screams like it’s 1964 while he tears the scorecard to bits. His acting is pitch perfect: shirtless, stoic drummer; cowboy cool bass player; shy, friendly bandleader. André twists and shouts and wears green, exposing the upper body TV was made for. Think of it as the one thing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy could not improve.

There are few gigs less appealing to the ego than standing next to André. Big Boi has been playing George and Ringo to André’s John and Paul since the second OutKast album, ATLiens, made it clear André was a gifted child. This is unfair, because Big Boi is one of the best MCs working. He is, at the very least, hip-hop’s fiercest enunciator. If somebody tries that “rapping isn’t music” nonsense with you (it still happens), hand them any of Big Boi’s verses from Stankonia and ask them to map out the accents, references, and feet. Give them several days and lots of graph paper. (You might want to mention the quality of something is rarely correlated to complexity, but that stuff tends to impress ignoram ae.) OutKast’s overtorqued physical impact, the sense that their records are more there than anyone else’s, comes in large part from Big Boi. The essence of Southern rap, the bounce, is all there in Big Boi’s voice and beats. Just listen to the first two minutes of “Knowing,” one of Speakerboxxx’s most propulsive tracks. It’s like watching someone tap-dance on a moving sidewalk while carrying three glasses of champagne. Blindfolded.

Speakerboxxx is not a solo disc in the sense The Love Below is, where André produces all his own tracks. Big Boi only produces some of Speakerboxxx, leaving the rest to Mr. DJ, Carl Mo, and André 3000 himself. “Ghetto Musick“ is André’s production and is OutKast’s most formally twisted song yet. It is, literally, three songs jump-cut together. But Big Boi’s productions hold their own, and as a series of songs, Speakerboxxx gains in consistency what little it loses in familiarity. The slinky crunk rehaul of “Tomb of the Boom” and the Parliament sound-alike “Bowtie” are sprung things. Apparently there are people in this country who would not dance in their chairs when “Bowtie” comes on. This is why we need national health care now, because that is not right.

The distinction isn’t as simple as André the omnivorous genius and Big Boi the genre-bound floor filler. André and Antwan both think about being good and being hip-hop, through different filters: “What about repenting?/ What about committing the same sin over again and again?” Big Boi asks on “Church.” On “Flip-Flop Rock,” Big Boi addresses someone who’s worried about being a “goody-two-shoes.” If there’s a gangsta script Big Boi believes in, he still knows it’s a script. Big Boi’s friends, though, are not as worried about the implications of their genre—just check the guest verses on “Tomb of the Boom” to see what it’s like to be a B-list thinker on an A-list album. (The exception is Ludacris, whose typically excellent verse makes good use of “pistachios” and “cuticles.”)

A quick scan of the current interviews tells even the pie-eyed fan that there won’t be a lot more OutKast records, though there will be records from both André and Antwan. That’s good enough news. But if America’s greatest rock group breaks up, it’ll still be a shame.