The duo Outkast, consisting of Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “3000” Benjamin have been one of the most restlessly ambitious hip-hop groups of all time. Together Outkast put Atlanta on the global hip-hop map. On Tuesday a new documentary was released on Netflix entitled “The Art of Organized Noize,” which chronicled the music producers who were responsible for creating some of the biggest hits for OutKast and other southern artists, like TLC.
After watching the documentary it got me thinking about the work of Outkast and its impact on hip-hop music and culture. So in honor of the documentary release, I’ve ranked Outkast’s studio albums in order of the most critically creative and lyrically dynamic.
This album put Outkast on the map. Their first single “Player’s Ball” provided a glimpse into a southern lifestyle that most of the country had never seen. The album also included the single “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” a funky tune that continued the laid back vibe featured in “Player’s Ball.” The song “Git Up, Git Out” introduced the world to the Goodie Mob and remains one of the most articulate expressions of the contemporary struggles of Black youth ever recorded on an album. Over all, Outkast’s debut record is a classic that blends southern drawl with east coast-like hip-hop vocality. The group introduced themselves as pimps and players who possessed a critical consciousness and understood certain nuances of how racial injustice plays out in the south. Listening to this record is like watching “Menace II Society” set in Atlanta.
#4. Speakerboxx/The Love Below
Although this album is Outkast’s most commercially successful record— by the time of its arrival the group had reached its creative peak. The duo had grown apart as evidenced by the release of separate albums: Big Boi’s Speakerboxx was filled with a vibrant hip-hop freshness, and Andre’s The Love Below saw his dynamic lyricism replaced with sing-songy pop vocals. The album featured huge cross-over hits like “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya.” Speakerboxx/The Love Below is also notable for making Outkast the only hip-hop group to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. However, the album is more pop music than hip hop, yet it still is a classic of the genre for its daring vision.
In many ways Stankonia was a primer for Speakerboxx/The Love Below in that it featured the groups push toward a more pop music sound. Gone were the lyrics that reflected social problems and Black life, as the group now released records that were more fun and universally loved— like the ubiquitous hits “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh and So Clean.” Stankonia also featured experimental songs like “Humble Mumble” and let’s not forget Andre’s blistering verse on the single “B.O.B (Bombs Over Bagdhad)” which marks perhaps his last rhyme as an emcee that possessed the social depth he had become known for.
The group’s third album title is a portmanteau of the two performers' Zodiac signs: Aquarius (Big Boi) and Gemini (André 3000). The record also takes Outkast to another level as artist pushing a unique creative vision by expanding on the previous record's space-age sound with live instrumentation. Aquemini burst with energy from the opening track “Return of the Gangsta” where the group attempts to set all the critics straight about their direction as artists. The album featured the hit “Rosa Parks,” which provided listeners a real “ho-down” at the bridge of the tune. The title track also features insightful verses from both rappers that reflect deeper aspects of the Black American experience. “Skew it on the Barb- B” featured Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan and was a colossal hip-hop smash. The album also experimented by creating songs that didn’t fit into the so-called radio format of 3 minute length. Songs like “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” which features the rappers performing spoken word style poetry clocks in at over 7 minutes and “Liberation” (featuring Erykah Badu and others) clocks in at nearly 9 minutes.
This album is Outkast at their finest. It represents the group's stark shift away from the hard-partying B-boy player/pimps to Afro-futuristic superheroes. No group has pushed themselves to change more constantly and Outkast displayed no change greater than the one marked between their first and second album. ATLiens included the sonic delights of songs like “Elevator (Me and You)” and the title track “ATLiens” (throw yo hands in the airyerr!) which exemplifies the group’s southern roots while displaying lyrical acumen that was comparable to any emcees in the game. The album also featured the single “Jazzy Belle” and other sleeper hits like “Wheelz of Steel” and “13th Floor/Growing Old.” Lyrically, on this album Outkast discuss a wide range of social topics including Black urban life, existential introspection, and extraterrestrial Afro-futurism. The album represents the most lyrically solid and focused record the group has ever released— as the first step in their transformation as artists growing from teenagers to men with keen insights into the world around them.
What's your favorite Outkast record? Let me know in the comments below. Be sure to like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and IG @ArtelGreat.
Dr. Artel Great is a media scholar who specializes in Black cultural production and popular culture at the intersection of film, television, media, race, and society. He is also an award winning actor, Independent Spirit Award-nominated filmmaker, social impact artist, public speaker, and cultural critic. In his free time, Dr. Great is a professor of American Television History and Culture at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.