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Lyric Analysis – Outkast, ‘Rosa Parks’

I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game
To stimulate then activate the left and right brain
Said baby boy you only funky as your last cut
You focus on the past your ass’ll be a has what
That’s one to live by or either that’s one to die to
I try to just throw it at you determine your own adventure
Andre, got to her station here’s my destination
She got off the bus, the conversation lingered in my head for hours
Took a shower kinda sour cause my favorite group ain’t comin with it
But I’m witcha cause you probably goin through it anyway
But anyhow when in doubt went on out and bought it
Cause I thought it would be jammin but examine all the flawsky-wawsky
Awfully, it’s sad and it’s costly, but that’s all she wrote
And I hope I never have to float in that boat
Up shit’s creek it’s weak is the last quote
That I want to hear when I’m goin down when all’s said and done
And we got a new joe in town
When the record player get to skippin and slowin down
All y’all can say is them niggas earned their crown but until then…
-Andre 3000, ‘Rosa Parks’

From ‘Aquemini’, the third album for ATL’s best duo, the work that moved them from one of the best in the South to one of the best in hip-hop and introduced them to a much wider audience (myself included), the song Rosa Parks has been back in the news recently as lawyers continue to push the legal battle of the civil rights figure herself – long past any necessary point and without real understanding of the song.  But that is a topic for another today.  For today’s lyric analysis I’ve chosen the song’s second verse.  I originally tried to pick a few lines to keep this article concise but Dre’s flow makes that nearly impossible at times.  Within this verse we see the lyrical prowess, the dreamer’s vision and some of the TheloniousMonk-type-off-but-on style that make Andre3000 one of the game’s most unique artists.  Let’s get into it.

Riding on a bus Dre apparently runs into a gypsy, the perfect image for one of his dreamy adventures.  She relays to the artist a particular piece of advice, something that I feel Outkast has always taken to heart: “you’re only funky as your last cut”.  Equally true for successes and failures, if you stay focused on the rear view, our gypsy wisely imparts, you’re doomed to be passed over.  Her advice is both true and keenly relevant to Outkast’s musical catalog.  One of my favorite characteristics of the dynamic duo has always been their ability to find new ways to keep it funky, without losing a) their commercial appeal and b) their identity.  They continue to move and change without losing their core fanbase.  In truth, when you embrace that essential need for artistic growth to the extent that Outkast has, it becomes part of your signature.

It was a long time before I heard the rumor that perhaps this gypsy was, in fact, Erykah Badu, longtime romantic partner of Dre’s.   The perspective of a fellow musician would make her insights all the keener but I also just kinda like the image I had of 3000 in the back of some bus, probably with head phones on, lost in a zone and somehow getting into a deep conversation with a gypsy woman in the next seat.

On a lyrical note, I think the line “That’s one to live by or either that’s one to die to” is brilliant in its own right, a well-written polarity between following some serious life advice and ignoring it.  The “at” in “throw it at you” has the effect of bouncing back to the previous rhyme pattern of “past” “has what” as well as the two “That’s” in the next line, each accentuated in the meter.
“I try to just throw it at you…” – is this Dre talking to us or is it still the gypsy talking to him?  Is there a difference?  The one thing that tips me to the latter is that he ends with the “Andre”, almost as if he’s being rattled out of a daydream, thinking about her advice, right as she gets off the bus.  On that “Andre” note the gypsy woman is gone and Dre is still lost in a haze that carries him from the bus to the shower and then the record store, still locked on this concept of artistic growth as he mentions that his “favorite group ain’t coming with it”.  I’ve always wondered who this group is.
As he considers the lower quality of material from said group and a process of dumbing down or just plain running out of inspiration that is all too common, Dre looks forward to later in his own career, eager to not repeat that pattern.  I wonder when he says “I’m witcha cause you probably going through it anyway” whether he is speaking to his fans saying he understands what his audience, fellow hip-hop fans, go through in purchasing a new album or whether he is saying he understands the struggles that his favorite group is encountering in trying to continually put out a dope product.  My inclination is towards the former but both are applicable, painting an image of the Outkast emcee at a point in his career delicately balanced between underrated, underground hip-hop artist and about-to-break-out-group, between hip-hop fan and rap mogul.

 The verse ends on a great image of “record player get[ting] to skipping and slowing down”, signifying both the musical work’s quality as the record is worn down through repeated play as well as the metaphor of an old man slowing down in life and in his career.  That was 16 years ago and both 3000 and Outkast have come a long way.  Written before their landmark album, ‘Stankonia’, and before they would create one of the highest-selling (double) albums in hip-hop history, ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’, Dre could have little idea of the span and depth his career would cover.  But as a fan and as a critic, all I can say is Outkast earned their crown.

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