Monday, December 21, 2009

Album review: Outkast - Stankonia

A few days ago I woke up with a lyric in my head: "Now Peter Piper picked a pepper, that was his downfall". How it found its way there is anyone's guess, but I never once believed that any line from Stankonia had ever completely left my mind since I first heard it almost a decade ago. Of course, back then, it was just another album my friend's older brother wouldn't turn off during Smash Bros, and hip hop was just another word for noise, but was it really possible that I didn't like "B.O.B." at one point? Could I really have escaped, even in those innocent times, the all-encapsulating funk that drenches every track? Was there really a time when the engineered-for-addictiveness beats weren't cemented to my eardrums? No, one must really acknowledge the magic of this album - well before I understood the slang or the culture or even listened to the words, it was one of my favorites. Before I even knew it was, it was. The evidence is obvious - every time I pick up the album, the newness is always coupled with a strong feeling of nostalgia. It's like being born addicted to coke, but with funkiness instead of tragedy. So when I find myself wanting to hear "Red Velvet" one morning for no apparent reason and cannot resist from having it on repeat for weeks after, it is one hell of a glorious relapse.

But just look at that line, the first line of the first verse of the song, which I've listened to a good dozen times while writing this. Even before considering the thematic or narrative aspects of the words themselves, the sound of them hits you. Peter Piper's tongue-twister status is deserved, but Big Boi's flipping of the flow from the punctuated precision of the rhyme to the surprising off-beat conclusion of "that was his downfall", complete with sublime southern drawl, perfectly captures the listener in less than a dozen syllables. This is Outkast's real gift: they have some of the most innovative production and some of the most clever lyrics of the last decade, but this is reinforced by some of history's best flow. Simply put, they make words sound good.

Of course, this isn't such a big deal today as it was back then. The fusion of RnB and hip hop under the unholy influence of auto-tune has left flow the top priority as hits get produced for the club, not the headphones. As such, the liquid beats and buttery flow of Stankonia  has become near gospel to today's producers. Unfortunately, the rappers of today never bothered to listen to any of the words. Compare these relevant lyrics from the two critic-proclaimed kings of flow of their era:

"Prioritize to live through
Tell these other niggas how you bought yo' kid some tennis shoes
Let these brothers know that your momma she got her house too
Let these niggas know that your sister wouldn't of..
finished.. college.. without you"

"Tell a bitch don't talk to me,
And if you're talking to them niggas, don't talk for free.
And I hate when a nigga say talk is cheap,
'Cause I'm the type to let money talk for me."

Yes, just as so wonderfully overture'd in the opening sentence, "Red Velvet" deals with all the bullshit that rappers give us today, and includes such other metaphorical gems as "Bill Gates don't dangle diamonds in the face/of peasants when he Microsoft'n in the place", whereas Lil Wayne rambles on about sex and jewelry for another few minutes and his music video probably contains some all-too literal diamonds. The prophetic nature of Outkast is probably diminished by the painful realization that a lot of rappers were doing that garbage back in their day, but for someone to completely bite their style and then promote a lifestyle that Andre and Big Boi explicitly condemn is too cruel to be foreseeable. I guess by point is that Lil Wayne is brutally mutilating hip hop, and my hate for him is near inexpressible, but I may be getting off point.

No wait, my point was that each of the songs on Stankonia is insightful, prophetic and wonderfully righteous. Most tracks deliver life lessons that sharply contrast the prevalent attitude on a number of subjects without ever sounding preachy or elitist. This packaging of a valuable message makes it even more resounding, and an unprecedented number of musical styles being incorporated keeps everything fresh. The experimentation present is never gimmicky, although it is novel, and each iteration of musical titans of the past - funk, soul, rock and roll, blues, electronica and more - comes off not as a mere reference or even a full-fledged homage, but as a true realization and evolution of the genre as it is spliced with Outkast's unique flavor of hip hop. With this, who could ignore messages about treating your baby's other grandmother right, not buying in to the American dream, making the right choices about teen pregnancy or just generally showing some class?

Apparently a lot of people, but who can really blame them? As I said before, Outkast sometimes sounds overwhelmingly good, to the extent that many finer details of the song, like what words are being said or what instruments are being used, are completely lost in a musical haze. This concept extends well beyond each individual track - the entire album is so massive that the mind boggles when trying to comprehend all the different styles, rappers, songs, verses, hooks, lyrics, words, syllables, productions and beats that comprise it. It's Jackson Pollock-like.

Now, I've already mentioned how the album contains a lot of sensible lessons about aspects of the southern rapper's lifestyle, but it's the nonsensical that sometimes even upstages this. Andre and Big Boi were brilliant,  but they brilliant enough to never overtly acknowledge this brilliance. If the opportunity presented itself to deliver hard and fast lines on a gangster life that they had previously condoned, they would gladly step up to the plate, creating the stunning posse cut "Gangster Shit". On "So Fresh, So Clean", they get nonsensically hilarious and narcissistic, but as their tongue flips between their cheek and pronouncing buttery lines, there isn't a hint of irony in their self-indulgence. They declare themselves as the coolest motherfunkers on the planet, and you know they believe themselves, how could they not? The entire foundation of stanking, the whole idea of the culture and world that this album creates and encapsulates, was built on two confident and creative young men. They stayed silly and never let on about it, but they were gods of this world.

Much has been made of the differences forming between Andre and Big Boi, but I find these claims to be often overrated. It's undeniable that they were branching away from each other in terms of what music they wanted to make and what subjects they wanted to cover, but several commonly held implications of this fact I find entirely unfair. First off, let no one say that Big Boi was "clinging" to his gangster roots. Too quickly people point to Killer Mike's vulgarities on "Snappin' & Trappin'" and imply that Big Boi's true intent lay here, ignoring the actual opposite meaning of the song and Big Boi's interceding judgment. True, Andre and Big Boi were becoming very different people on this album, but they still had many similar ideals and they both definitely knew how to make good music. Between them, they left no stone unturned.

And really, I can go on and on about this album, but it seems futile. I wouldn't even be able to scratch the surface of it, because how could you even find the surface of something this multi-faceted, this dynamic, this liquid, this smooth? There's the boldness of "Gasoline Dreams", with it's anthem-like chanting and controversial message. The momentum of "Humble Mumble", constantly reinventing itself with increasingly dynamic beats and infectious lyrics, bible-quotes and Eryhka Badu vocals. "Spaghetti Junction" bringing big brass beats and ice cold rhymes, the slow-burning "Slum Beautiful" bending guitars as perspectives on the ghetto are challenged, "Xplosion" brings hydroponic beats that cling to your ears for months at a time, and the powerful epic "Stankonia (Stanklove)" - not quite as funky as "SpottieOttieDopalicious", but still pure cream. Even the skits and intro deserve some love: they're funny enough and do a good job of bridging the overall narrative. I haven't even mentioned the most critically beloved of tracks, "B.O.B." and "Mrs. Jackson", but I can't imagine there's much that's been left to say about them, extensive and amazing as they are.

Rarely does an album come together like this one. It's sprawling in scope and yet laser-intense when it needs to be. It's immensely quotable but hypnotic production often overpowers such wittiness. In all, it stands the test of almost a decade's time and remains one of the best hip hop albums of all time. In fact, it still sounds like the best hip hop album from twenty years in the future. This album includes both a tear-jerking description of a young girl sitting on a toilet contemplating the baby within her and the lyrics "Like a three-piece fist 'fore I cut your daughter. Yo quiero Taco Bell, then I hit the border." How did that happen? How is it even possible? This album, the child of a poet and a player, is near miraculous. Small wonder it churns up in my brain several times a day without any provocation. I wonder if it's almost too much for its own good some times, and I'm not sure if it's quite as amazing as Aquemini, but this is undeniably something special. 9.7/10

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