One of the most anticipated and talked-about events on the hip-hop scene in 2014 has been the return of Outkast (who happen to be this writer’s favorite group). Rumors popped up last winter of a possible new album (which would be their first since 2006’s Idlewild soundtrack). While the album rumors were refuted in January, fans received great news that the reunion was indeed alive and well as the duo got set to kick off a 40-festival tour this Spring and Summer beginning by headlining the Coachella Music Festival in mid-April.
Each time I think about the reunion, Aquemini’s opening track goes on repeat in my head. It’d be difficult to imagine them not opening at least a few of the festival stops with the thump of ‘Return of the G’. As we envision what might be coming up, first let’s ask, What exactly have 3stacks and DaddyFatSacks been up to over the past decade?
Outkast understands that artistic pursuit takes many forms and to keep the energy fresh one always has to be looking for something new. 2003 brought the landmark, ground-breaking, critically and financially successful double album Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. Featuring big hits on both sides, Big Boi with “The Way You Move” and Andre with “Hey Ya!”, the album would win the Grammy for Album of the Year and eventually earn diamond status (although, to be fair, this is because each sale is counted as two albums). In 2006 they released their sixth album, the Idlewild soundtrack. The film and soundtrack saw the group continue their artistic exploration, incorporating blues, jazz and ragtime influences and sensibilities.
Rumors about Outkast breaking up have persisted throughout their career and the source of this speculation is frequently the contrast between Big Boi’s more traditional hip-hop image and Andre’s unique sense of style and expression. They have often answered them lyrically, always with the same answer: “We’re cool”. On the aforementioned “Return of the G”, Dre’s verse ends with such speculation:
“Then the question is Big Boi what’s up with Andre?
Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?
When y’all gon’ break up? When y’all gon’ wake up?
Nigga I’m feelin’ better than ever what’s wrong with you
You get down!”
Two albums later, as they prepared what would be their fifth and best-selling album, Big Boi penned these lines on “The Way You Move”:
“…Outkast is everlasting
Not clashing, not at all
But see, my nigga went to do a little acting…”
On Idlewild, as chatter once again swirled about the possible end of hip-hop’s top duo, Big Bo dropped another reference to said rumors on “Morris Brown”:
“And everybody wanna know whus really goin’ on
Is you and 3000 still makin’ songs?…
It would seem, at least from their perspective, that from the beginning folks have been questioning Outkast’s ability to maintain their cohesiveness despite their inherent differences, not realizing that this is, in fact, one of their greatest traits as a group.
It’s in the aftermath of Idlewild that Outkast’s “hiatus” did actually begin. It’s of little surprise that a break was needed after such a successful 12 years and it’s of little use to speculate on the reasons. A band, much like a romantic relationship, is a personal and complicated set of circumstances with no one path to success and no one formula for avoiding failure. That being said, it was Dre that took a break from music in 2006-7 while Big Boi prepared material for a true solo album centered around his long-standing character/alias, Sir Lucious Left Foot. Always eager for new endeavors, Andre had begun his foray into acting a few years prior, with notable roles in the Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool (though the movie was terrible, Dabu was fantastic) and John Singleton’s Four Brothers. As he turned his attention from music, he found a true variety of roles on both the big screen – variety = Semi-Pro, Battle in Seattle, Charlotte’s Web – and the small screen with fan-favorite Robert Huggins on The Shield. He created, produced and starred in the Cartoon Network family-friendly series Class of 3000 to moderate acclaim but the show was derailed and cancelled due to a lawsuit in 2008. Most recently he played Jimi Hendrix in the biopic All is By My Side, set to be released this summer.
Given Andre’s flamboyance, Big Boi is perhaps one of the more underrated emcee’s in hip-hop, lending a grounded, sometimes gully, always pimpish, but no less lyrically proficient half to the Aquemini mix. As 3000 and Outkast went on hiatus, Big Boi pushed ahead with his solo effort, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, an exploration of what he’s called his “grown-man persona” with a bass-heavy, Down South sound, a talented use of guest appearances, and even a dedication to his late father’s military nickname in the title, Chico Dusty. In 2007, 3000 made his return to the mic with perhaps hip-hop’s greatest string of guest performances. I won’t rehash the series in detail but I remember there being a period when John Legend’s “Green Light” was my absolute jam. The guys at BoomBox.com have assembled this countdown of the 20 best guest appearances by Mr. 3000 since Outkast’s “breakup”.
It would be deceptive, though, to say that the last eight years (since Idlewild) have seen Outkast simply calmly searching for new artistic enterprises. Label pressures and corporate mergers/acquisitions have changed the business background surrounding ATL’s finest, ultimately landing the duo back with LA Reid in his new post as the head of Epic Records. The course of events is somewhat cloudy but the main points look something like this:
With Outkast having been restructured from Arista to Jive Records in 2004, in the post-Idlewild / Andre-hiatus phase it would seem that the folks at Jive began to get nervous. The release of Sir Lucious Left Foot was continuously delayed and Big Boi pressured to produce a new Outkast album. For three years fans received singles, leaks and hints from the forthcoming album, diluting its selling potential while Big Boi was told to go write “his version of Lil Wayne’s lollipop”. By 2009 Big Boi had had enough, leaving as a solo artist, while Outkast remained signed as a group. Big Boi took his talents to LA Reid, the man who had begun their career, and got signed to Def Jam. The problems with his solo album persisted, though, as Jive initially blocked its release on the grounds of Andre’s appearance (still signed to Jive) on three tracks. Eventually Sir Lucious… saw release in July of 2010, followed by a second solo album in 2012, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. Meanwhile, in 2010 Reid left Def Jam (UMG) and returned to Sony to head up Epic Records, featuring artists that Sony split off from those that would become the RCA Music Group, including Outkast. Earlier this month, Daddy Fat Sacks announced that he had inked a deal with Epic Records, rejoining him with his mentor LA Reid and putting his solo work once again on the same label as that of his group.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary since their first album release, Outkast has chosen to do something that they’ve done notably little of during their career and have embarked on a 40-festival tour, beginning by headlining Coachella in Cali and making appearances at others all across the world. Outkast knows what many have been discovering about festival shows over the last decade: what was once an event for a select group of hippies is now the new, awesome way to hit a key segment of their audience while they enjoy a full and various musical experience. When they made the announcement back in January, the excitement for Outkast’s next phase was tangible.
“It’s truly an honor to celebrate 20 years and still be free to do music the way we choose,” said Big Boi. “Don’t just think outside the box, know that there is no box. I’m looking forward to rocking the stage with my Bro Ski and to all the fans – stank you smelly much, this is for y’all!”
For Outkast fans, the word has always been that 3000 is the one who, despite his outwardly wild appearance, shies away from touring. Cee-Lo credited it to stage fright when asked and Dre even addressed it, lyrically again, on T.I.’s track “Sorry”:
“And this the type of shit that’ll make you call your rap partner
And say I’m sorry I’m awkward, my fault for fuckin’ up the tours
I hated all the attention so I ran from it
Fuck it if we did, but I hope we ain’t lose no fans from it”
But as the duo set their sights on the #Outkast20 tour, Dre’s thoughts seemed to be focused on their fans and showing gratitude for two decades of success:
“And imagine, all we wanted to do was rap! I am thankful to have been a part of a group that allowed me to explore anything that came to mind and have fun doing it. Returning to the stage together is the most exciting way for us to thank everyone for their 20 years of supporting Outkast,” said André 3000.
As of this writing, the duo has completed four of their 40 stops, appearing at the Hangout Music Festival in Alabama on the 18th. Reviews of the opening performance of the tour at Coachella were unanimously disappointed but their set on that festival’s second weekend showed a reinvigorated, reorganized and very much alive version of hip-hop’s best twosome.
There are few artists or groups in hip-hop’s history that have combined the grand commercial success, artistic exploration, and a trueness to their fans in the way that Outkast has over the last 20 years. Many have experienced similar tribulations and pitfalls along the way but few have found the staying power that Andre and Big Boi have and it’s this writer’s hope that they continue their “time-traveling, mind-unraveling” ways for years to come.
Enjoy this shaky cell phone footage of the second Coachella set: