The Atlanta duo’s career-definining fourth LP was the sweet sound of gasoline poured on the American Dream
Writers, northern white ones anyway, tend to liken a thick, southern drawl like Antwan Patton or André Benjamin’s to molasses or syrup for its geographical proximity.
But the sticky stuff embodies the space they occupy on all fronts, the viscous degree between solid and liquid in their abstractionist jump-ropey rhymes (André 3000 puts “You’re so Anne Frank” in a come-hither partly because he can squish it into rhyming with “Rick James”) and the blobs and squirts they made of the Southern rap toolkit (The flatulent acid synth that mocks the third verse of “Xplosion”). “The coolest motherfunkers on the planet / The sky is falling ain’t no need to panic” isn’t just one of Outkast’s seamless contradictions rolling off the tongue, it’s a bridge that André 3000 affixes to the tune because his interest in songform was beginning to outgrow rap.
But where OutKast’s magnum opus Stankonia broke from 1998’s more-lauded-now-than-it-was-then benchmark Aquemini was how it hurried the fuck up. Molasses is slow and so were patient grooves like “SpottieOttieDopalicious” and “Elevators,” no matter how fluently the duo rapped in their own lasciviously legible George Clinton mush. To infinity and beyond went their beats as the millennium hit, cutting the laid-back pour of a 1994 nug like “Crumblin’ Erb” or “Ain’t No Thang” with light-speed drum programming and a Jackson Pollock waterfall of color in the sudden variety of keyboard and synth textures, not to mention live musicians and genres being slammed together like toy cars in the hands of a grade-schooler. It probably takes a backseat to Aquemini today because it has no chill.
Led by the ever-ad libbing André, OutKast’s lexical imagination ran wild with “Gasoline Dreams” that rocketed fast and smelled toxic, and the rubber mouth aerobics of “Humble Mumble” (“all aboard the Underground Smellroad,” which rhymes with “railroad” to this freak) — and I quote, yowskie wowskie, peeskie weeskie. Even the cruelty of naming a pregnant 14-year-old “Toilet Tisha” who takes her own life balanced out with the empathy of André willing her and her story into existence, fitting the ugliness with shiny, ultraviolet Prince synths and alienized falsetto, even jingle bells and a tiny callback to The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”. That one exemplifies the realist-surrealist intergalacticacy here if anything does. It’s the flipside of the far more well-known babymama parable “Ms. Jackson,” which is probably these guys’ greatest song, all told, though the euphoric freedom they unlocked in “Hey Ya!” deserves a mention and Stankonia’s other masterpiece “B.O.B.” could take the title tomorrow. It’s telling that these visionary great-album makers got their largest triumphs, all of the above, onto the radio, which puts them in a class with Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson, even if George Clinton touched them more than all of the above combined.
That is, Stankonia, one of the best albums ever made, is also one of history’s most urgent-sounding funk expansions. Sprawling out at 73 minutes, this mothership never slows down until the Vocoder-spaghetti finish, a big high comedown after a sobering squigglefest that includes the staccato square waves of “Red Velvet,” the various burps and bubbles of the co-ed pleasure party “I’ll Call Before I Become,” and the most impactful drum ‘n’ bass derived piece of music ever on American soil, “B.O.B.,” five minutes of slamming rubber gospel-ska-jungle-funk that nodded to Hendrix and electro as much as it did Roni Size. (This week’s expanded reissue stuffs Zack de la Rocha into it as well.) As statement-of-purpose generational anthems go, it sure makes mincemeat of the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” which isn’t without its Billy Joel-goes-Bono-goes-Tweetdeck charms. “B.O.B.” and “Ms. Jackson” weren’t just fantastic expansions of pop’s sonic boundaries (the reversed congas!) but they sounded important.
Stankonia captured a particular jubilation from a cast of talents who’ve lived the Southern Black struggle their whole existence, as if there was a party on the other side of it and these guys couldn’t wait forever-ever (forever-ever? Forever-ever??) to have a victory to celebrate. Why not fabricate that triumph themselves?