OutKast's 'Stankonia' Threw Us To The Wilderness

Nov 18, 2020

When OutKast released its fourth studio album Stankonia, the pioneering duo out of Atlanta, Ga., was not new to this, but they remained true to the hip-hop thing. Released on Halloween 2000, months after the initial Y2K scare that left people terrified of being throttled back into a period of darkness and technological paranoia, Stankonia took full advantage of the new millennium. They stayed true to what they did best and created something powerful on the fringes of mainstream pop culture's expectations of them as southerners and as rappers.

Breaking new ground cleared from the debris of nostalgia, burned with their Chonkyfire, Stankonia challenged listeners to reconsider what it meant to be OutKasted in the wilderness of an unknown new world. Never ones to shy away from the stank of imagined and social-historical realities, Stankonia is a demonstration of André Benjamin and Big Boi evolving their sound, their identities, and their art. Benjamin was blasting centuries ahead with his latest moniker, André 3000, an Afrofuturist prediction that the future was Black and dope as hell, and Big Boi was growing increasingly experimental in not only his lyrical delivery but his fashion sense, paralleling Benjamin's own eccentric flair for fashion.

Stankonia was a curation of not only OutKast's investment in the future, but a blueprint for what was to come later with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below: a look at the group's evolution as men and as artists, solidly and firmly centered in a stronghold of how the South could sound. Earthtone III — consisting of Benjamin, Big Boi, and DJ David "Mr. DJ" Sheats — are on full display for the majority of the album. Stankonia showcases influences from multiple genres, eras, feelings, and experiences, including EDM on the much celebrated and canonized "B.O.B."

So come kick it wit ya folk, myself, and writers and NPR Music contributors extraordinaire Christina Lee and Gavin Godfrey, as we travel back in time to experience the sonic and lyrical mayhem of what it means to create something new. Ain't nan humbly mumbled seven light years below sea level. Everything is loud, boisterous and intentional, "Gasoline Dreams" burning bright, no breaks, unless it's Big Boi and 3 Stacks telling us to take a breath and make a stop at "Spaghetti Junction" to pick up Kim, Cookie, Eco, Badu, and Boo and the D.F. crew patiently waiting to take a ride. Er'thang ain't figured out, but everything is "Gangsta S***." Snappin' and trappin'. Don't you wanna come? — Regina Bradley

This conversation, originally streamed live on YouTube for NPR Music's Listening Party series, has been edited for length and clarity. The deluxe Stankonia, reissued digitally with previously unreleased tracks and remixes, is out now. There's also a new version presented in 360 Reality Audio.

Dr. Regina Bradley: I feel like I'm back in high school, junior year — shout out to Westover High School — running to lunch, listening to Stankonia. I'm really in my feelings. Chris, Gavin, what are your immediate reactions to listening to Stankonia 20 years later?

Gavin Godfrey: Man, it still sounds super fresh 20 years later. To me, not much has changed other than time. They still sound as fresh as they did 20 years ago.

Christina Lee: I mean, listening to this album kind of feels crazy. I sometimes forget just how vibrant this album is, how ambitious this album is, but that's what immediately strikes me. It's amazing how OutKast is able to really just branch off at this point, especially when you compare it to their previous discography.

Stankonia is really Earthtone III's first real foray into completing the majority of the album. 'Cause usually when you think OutKast and Dungeon Family, you automatically go to the GOATS, which is Organized Noize. How do you feel the production shifted? Did you hear anything different from, like the earlier discography to Stankonia?

Lee: I got to credit my friend Jason Lee, but he compared the album to sort of like splitting the atoms. And what he meant by that was, you know, OutKast, the unit, is still very much intact, but I think of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below ... I feel like I can really start to hear the individual influences start to play out, especially as we transition from track to track. But of course, we only know that from hindsight. What do you think, Gavin?

Godfrey: Every two years, OutKast reinvent themselves, makes new sounds, makes some slang, makes quality albums. But this, to me, felt like such a dramatic shift. And I remember I loved it, but it also marks the beginning of the end, because as Mr. DJ pointed out, this was everybody coming into their individual creative peaks. That also meant that individually they all had different goals, but somehow they pulled it together for this one, for a common goal and made, to me, my personal second favorite OutKast album.

Think about the time that the album came out. It was 2000, folks are still losing their s*** in terms of "It's a brand-new year. Things are going to fall apart." Like, I was literally waiting for airplanes to fall out the sky on Nov. 1, 2000, you know what I'm saying? And then here you have OutKast with like, "We're going to establish this new world of hip-hop." And it's in conversation with what was going on in Southern hip-hop, especially at the time, right? Atlanta had arrived; folks were starting to come here to make music, starting new genres from crunk to the beginnings of trap. You know what I'm saying? What do you think Stankonia represents for what's happening in the larger culture of Southern hip-hop?

Godfrey: Man, I think, at least for me, it just represents the willingness to hold ourselves accountable. You have lyrics that are calling out the blame era, the disrespect and misogyny of women in hip-hop. But this time around, these guys sounded frustrated, angsty, not in a preachy or bitchy way. It was like there's a lot of stuff they needed to get off their chest. And a lot of that stemmed from what was going on in the music industry and economy at the time and what was considered popular. Like we said, they always do their own thing and stay true to their mission, but they still had to do that and exist within this industry that has all these rules and limitations, which are just two words that this group is unaccustomed to.

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There was a lot going on. So not only is it the rise of Southern hip-hop, but it's also one year before we get into Sept. 11, when "Bombs Over Baghdad" takes on a different meaning. Can you share your thoughts on that?

Lee: What's really interesting about the timing of Stankonia is that this is coming after the first Gulf War. So when André 3000 is overhearing bombs over Baghdad on the newscast, this is during the Clinton administration. George W. Bush ain't president yet. But the thing is, that conflict continued into the second Gulf War, i.e. the Iraq war.

It's interesting how that song, in particular, takes on new meaning. A lot of people ended up interpreting that as a patriotic anthem. There were reports of troops actually playing the song as they're literally firing missiles into Baghdad. And that was a really tricky point in time for OutKast because the single came to show their global reach, especially for a Southern hip-hop group. But, of course, the song ends up being their example of "Born in the U.S.A."; OutKast came out and said that they were against the Iraq war.

What do you think it is about the Stankonia album that really made folks sit up and pay attention to what they were doing and why they couldn't just be considered Southern hip-hop after all?

Lee: I think what's really interesting about this album is that it is absolutely Southern hip-hop, but there is a part that is very conscious of the world around them. You're seeing these dichotomies play out, the sort of balance between mainstream hip-hop and the conscious hip-hop era. We have to remember that, at this particular time, those two genres are starting to branch off. And the thing is, Stankonia encompasses all that.

Godfrey: I think they built a world with this album. I'm gonna nerd out real hard real quick, but OutKast, for me, is almost like George Lucas when Star Wars was good. He was known for building whole worlds, but he literally was just telling stories about everyday occurrences. But he made you see it through this lens. OutKast is still very much rooted in Atlanta. Through the lyrics, through the sounds, they're not only thinking globally, but universally; these boys are thinking about the cosmos.

When I talk to DJ and Big Boi about this, the name Stankonia comes from Dre just always referring to everything they did as funky. They want everything to be funky, funky, funky and go back to the crazy lack of limitations that came from Parliament Funkadelic before them. I think it all stemmed from them being comfortable in their world, but also trying to step outside of their comfort zone and bring everybody along with them.

We're not just going to gush on Stankonia, you know, I got to ask you: What do you think has aged well about the album and what do you think hasn't aged so well?

Godfrey: In the culture now, I don't know how "Snappin' & Trappin'" would have been received, how much folks would have responded to what Killer Mike was saying in there. Back then, maybe lyrically, you could get away with a lot more because there wasn't the proliferation of social media, a constant influx of information to call out every single lyric, every little thing somebody did.

Listen to Stankonia now and it's wild, you know, because, man, these dudes knew. It's like they knew everything that was going to happen today. But they were talking about it 20 years ago and it's still so, so relevant. So, I mean, a lot has aged well for me in terms of I think it sounds even better now than it did then.

Lee: I mean, I echo absolutely everything that Gavin said. I think the thing with OutKast is that the perspective is always coming from, like, "Here we're going to give you some food for thought." And I think in this particular age, giving food for thought isn't clear cut enough for listeners. I think listeners expect groups to kind of take on a very particular stance. And maybe this is because I'm reading a book called The Butterfly Effect; it's the first biography of Kendrick Lamar by Marcus J. Moore. But in listening to some of Kendrick's discography and comparing it to Stankonia, I think I'm most struck by how, at this particular time, there's a lot of hip-hop acts that are turning to rock past and Black music past and understanding that even though we're operating within the space of hip-hop, we have the entire musical gamut to pull inspiration from.

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So I kind of want to go back to the woman question, if I want to put my academic hat on. You know what I'm saying? I'm not quite sure that "We Luv Deez Hoez" is something that'll, you know, pass the litmus test. Misogyny is definitely something that might have not aged well. I'm thinking one of the things that makes it an intellectual critique of the world is definitely recognizing the treatment of women. Like you definitely see the growth, especially with something like The Love Below, which comes next. But can y'all talk to that a little bit? What is it about this album that demands critical engagement? It's not just listening to it for fun. It's like, no for real, we have these really serious issues we're talking about from abortion to racial profiling.

Godfrey: "We Luv Deez Hoez" is perfect for the time. Ludacris was talking about hoes in different area codes; they're very aware of what's going on around them. But at the same time there were a lot of folks who expected introspective poets. And then some folks just wanted them to be Atlanta forever. And they're all of that, you know what I'm saying? They had built a reputation of being able to smoke a blunt and have Henny with you, but also talk about Afrofuturism. And you know what it just means to be a person of color in a country that doesn't always accept us. So, sure you might hear "We Luv Deez Hoez" or something like that. But what happened? We got "Gasoline Dreams." They were taking risks. And that's always what they've done. And this was just another risk.

Oh, and just real quick shout out to Dr. Treva Lindsey, who came up with the term "melodious misogyny." It's the s*** we like to listen to while being hella problematic.

Godfrey: I get it. I like that.

Chris, do you have any thoughts about why we still kind of struggle with listening to music with a critical ear and not necessarily thinking about it as a critique?

Lee: I think the main thing with OutKast is that, from the jump, I think people saw how OutKast really represented the spectrum of humanity. As humans, we don't just listen to conscious or mainstream hip-hop. Like, that's not how we exist as people. But OutKast was able to recognize that we listen to both.

I also think we underestimate the fact how "Ms. Jackson" really kind of set the tone for the conversation, so that even when an album like this has its more misogynistic moments, you had songs like "Ms. Jackson" and "Humble Mumble" to balance everything out and offer that whole spectrum of humanity. So I don't know why people don't want to engage with hip-hop critically. I think it's absolute bulls***. I mean, but I will say that OutKast presented a very convincing argument as to why you should engage with the genre critically.

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One of the things that I just thoroughly enjoy about Stankonia and I will die on this hill is that the skits on this album are some of the best in hip-hop. Period. It's perfection. "Kim & Cookie (Interlude)" is my s***. Still my s***. I got detention because I was playing that joint in Spanish class when it first came out, you know what I mean? Like my Spanish teacher thought she was doing some, "You need to say it en español," and I did. [Laughs.]

Lee: Can you still do it though?

Uh, no. That's the English answer. And, no, in Spanish. OK. [Laughs.] Do you guys have any thoughts about what the significance of humor was for this album?

Lee: The skits are emblematic of how OutKast was always trying to ground the album in the real world. The skits really help to add that color to let you guys know that even though OutKast is like, what, seven light years into the center of the world, they're also really earthbound. They are so much in tune with how the world is operating today.

Godfrey: First of all, Kim and Cookie need their own podcast. Let's give them ladies the voice.

Where they at though? Where are they at?

Godfrey: You know, most album skits, especially in hip-hop, there's no context, it's just like here's a little filler. We need to fill a gap and definitely want this thing to still be like an hour and half. Every OutKast skit perfectly goes into the next song. And it speaks to the themes of what's going on in the album. It's like we've been saying: the world is on fire, things are crazy, but at home, dudes is still just at the bar complaining about his job. You know what I'm saying? Girls are trying to, you know, be satisfied by the gentleman they meet and sometimes it's just not up to snuff. Just like everyday conversations that we're having, they're sprinkled throughout these very real conversations that are playing throughout the album.

And I think the best comedy we've ever seen always comes from pain. So while they're giving you this dose of reality and seriousness, there's got to be levity because that levity also comes from that same seriousness and reality that we're facing. So the skits on here and the skits on Aquemini are the greatest skits on a hip-hop album, ever.

Period.


Regina Bradley is the author of the book Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South (coming Feb. 2021 from University of North Carolina Press), and co-host of the Bottom of the Map podcast with music journalist Christina Lee. Gavin Godfrey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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