by Simon Reynolds
In a recent diatribe, American theorist Joe Carducci blamed digital studio techniques for extinguishing rock's vital spark. And he lambasted contemporary black music, "an 'R&B' that's increasingly sci-fi in its hysterical self-loathing flight from the American earth of roadhouse, kitchen, church, juke joint, whorehouse." Atlanta, Georgia duo OutKast-- the most critically acclaimed hip hop group right now--invariably get praised in downhome Dixie imagery suspiciously similar to Carducci's dated, chitlin' circuit notions of authentic blackness: the wholesome soul-food lingo of bubbling gumbo, homemade peach cobbler, chicken grease, and, groan, "Southern-fried".
Stankonia, OutKast's fourth album, simultaneously plays on these received ideas of the South and reinvents them. On one hand, the title "Stankonia" is a spin on the notion of the "Dirty South" as America's nether regions, font of all that's shake-that-ass salacious from Twenties hot jazz to today's New Orleans bounce. "Stank," meaning "funk" in the body odor or sex-smell sense, sources OutKast's music in the body. But the "--onia" evokes spacey strangeness, alien worlds. OutKast are Afro-Futurists--their breakthrough single, 1996's "Elevators (You and Me)" resembled a hip hop version of Sun Ra's "Strange Celestial Roads". And Southern rap has always been obsessed with the futuristic, basing its sound on electro's synths and drum machines rather than vintage breakbeats and Seventies funk samples.
Despite the fact that Atlanta specifically is hub of the New South and spiritually closer to Silicon Valley than the cotton fields, people still imagine all of America below Mason-Dixie as "country" rather than urban. Which is why OutKast's 1998 Aquemini was cherished by critics for the way its organic, live-band feel-- horn stabs, string cascades, Isley Brothers guitar links, even a harmonica solo from an honest-to-goodness black minister--was so different from the jittery cyberfunk rhythms that dominated R&B and rap in the wake of Timbaland. On Stankonia, though, possibly in response to the monstrous success last year of the Southern "sci-fi" sound of labels like Cash Money, there's a marked inorganic edge to the textural palette, like the gibbering, gargoyle-like synths on "Snappin' & Trappin'." As with so much rap recently, Stankonia's often incredibly close to electronica--and for once, the influence is direct and fully acknowledged. Big Boi and Andre 3000 attend raves in the Atlanta area, did field research in London's clubland, and upped the tempos on Stankonia because "nowadays you got different drugs on the [rap] scene. X [Ecstasy] done hit the hood." The single "Bombs Over Baghdad" is a stab at drum'n'bass, but a bit of a noisy mess, marred by the kind of metal guitar that people are praising only because any rock element at all is so unusual in rap these days. "?" is a far more compelling foray into the jungle--tangled breaks, chirruping synth-blurts, ravey micro-riffs.
Aquemini often recalled the early guitar-dominated Funkadelic, but Stankonia's coordinates are much more George Clinton's Eighties electrofunk sound: "I'll Call Before I Come", for instance, features waddling "Atomic Dog" synth-bass and processed percussion that dribbles like a hound in heat. Elsewhere, you hear another psychedelic funkateer : "Ms. Jackson" recalls Prince at his most flower-power-poppy circa Around the World In A Day, all skidding and stumbling backwards-echo drums and lovely "Pop Life" piano. Lyrically, it's a touching take on the baby-daddy syndrome (the guy who's no longer with the woman whose child he fathered), addressed to the baby-mama's mama: "Never meant to make your daughter cry/I apologize a trillion times."
OutKast are often tarred with the same "soul-nourishing" brush as their compadres Goodie Mob (both groups work with production squad Organized Noize). And it's true: OutKast don't really go in for "niggatvity" or ghettocentric "real-ness" Where Ruff Ryders-style hardcore MCs "spit" (slang that vividly evokes expulsion of noxious emotion), Boi and Dre skip. For them, rapping is still about (word)play, not verbal homicide. When it comes to the gender wars, there's equal-opportunity abuse on "We Luv Deez Hoez", with put-downs of both the gold-digger who schemes to get pregnant and the foolish baby-daddy who "should have pulled it out and squirted on her eyelash." What makes OutKast interesting is the way the duo's partnership dramatizes and reconciles the two warring sides of rap's soul: bad boy versus conscious. Boi is the Cadillac-driving playa, a thug with a heart. Wacikly attired Dre is an androgynous dreamer/kook a la PM Dawn's Prince B or Kool Keith, to the point of receiving the ultimate gangsta aspersion of "gayness" (despite being Erykah Badu's baby-daddy).
Most rap albums peter out around halfway, but Stankonia just gets better. "Humble Mumble" unleashes a triple-time tongue-twister of internal rhymes and assonance over an urgent slink of a groove. "Red Velvet" is an audio-maze of multitracked, warped vocals as cartoonishly absurd as wildstyle graffiti, with a lyric that's street-wise in a different sense to the usual thug threats: it warns playas that rubbing your wealth in folks' faces ain't just mean, it's dumb--some hater will eventually try to take it, and your life. "Gangsta Sh*t" is a headspinning miasma of echoplexed guitar billowing and braiding across the stereo-field. Cyber-ballad "Toilet Tisha" grieves for a pregnant teenager who commited suicide in the bog (hence the title's painful pun), gorgeously appointed with liquid blues guitar like John Martyn jamming with Zapp. "Slum Beautiful" features cigsmoke-through-sunshaft curlicues of backwards-guitar that could be from "1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be", while closer "Stankonia (Stanklove)" is real-deal trip hop, a stoned mirage of cosmic choir, robot-with-indigestion bass, and dub-reverb.
Like Electric Ladyland, "Stankonia" doubles as the name of OutKast's studio and their nickname for utopia: a boogie wonderland where you can free your ass and mind. Dissolving all the binary oppositions that conventionally structure music (live vs. studio/programmed, streets vs. space, roots vs. future), OutKast's music is equal parts fleshly and phantasmagoric. Stankonia is a freakadelic masterpiece.