On September 23, 2003, America was just months into what would become its interminable War on Terror. The U.S. had invaded Iraq in March, and now President George W. Bush stood at the podium of the U.N. to announce that “Iraq as a democracy will have great power to inspire the Middle East.”
He was, of course, wrong.
But on that same September day, there was another announcement that would indeed hold “great power to inspire”: André 3000 and Big Boi, known together as OutKast, dropped their fifth studio album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In the culture at least, it would go on to inspire a new world order, sparked by two men also famous for bombs over Baghdad.
While technically a double album, the two albums were more like stand-alone affairs, since each artist wrote, arranged and recorded their work on their own, and then bundled their two solo albums together. The duo had always gone their own way, done things on their own time, and to their own satisfaction. But would fans be satisfied if the two emcees went even further their own way, and in the case of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, looked to be moving apart?
The answer was a resounding yes. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and would go on to win Best Rap Album and Album of the Year at the Grammys.
Eight years earlier at the 1995 Source Awards — at the height of the East Coast versus West Coast beef that would claim the lives of Biggie and ‘Pac — hip hop was focused on New York and California. No one saw the Atlanta-based OutKast coming. Still, André 3000 stood on that stage and boasted, “The South got something to say.” It was a warning to the status quo.
He was spot-on, too, because the South burst into hip hop in a big way at the end of the 1990s with the sonic rise of the Dirty South. And yet, somehow, OutKast continued to stand apart. They were always on some other shit.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, in particular, signaled that their strange and beautiful Blackness was about to go mainstream. In fact, their creative and critical success was followed by the unquestioned ascendance of other strange and beautiful Black artists — Kanye West, Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, mixtape era Lil Wayne, The Weeknd, Childish Gambino and even Future and Drake. Also worth noting — you don’t get Jordan Peele making the movies he does now, without OutKast making the music they did then.
In order to give them their flowers while they’re here as well as to celebrate their high-water mark, I convened a roundtable of three Black men whose sense of the world and themselves were each deeply shaped by OutKast. These three men:
- Hanif Abdurraqib: Poet, editor and author of Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest
- Carvell Wallace: Journalist, author and host of the podcast Finding Fred
- Kiese Laymon: Professor and author of Heavy: An American Memoir
Here’s what they had to say about what OutKast meant as purveyors of a proud new unapologetic Blackness…
Do you remember purchasing Speakerboxxx/The Love Below?
Wallace: I bought the disc at Amoeba on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. And I definitely remember the first listen. I remember popping Disc One of that double CD in and pushing my little Ford Focus system to the brink. That “GhettoMusick” opener was so unceasing — so much energy, so many bass notes in a measure — it had me wylin’ out, bouncing up and down in my seat about to run my shit off the road. I was renting a room from some rich folks in a white-ass part of town, and I was like low-key scared to turn it up, less one of these undercover Klan types come running out with the shotty. But after a while, I didn’t give a fuck where I was. Them white folks were gonna GET this Big Boi!
Abdurraqib: I didn’t purchase it until much later after it came out. It dropped back when I didn’t have much money to buy albums, but I did have a library card. The trick for the highly anticipated albums was having someone on the inside who could tell you when the album was going into the system, so you could reserve it first. Otherwise, you’d be on a wait list that could span months. So I got it from the library maybe two days after it came out — there was always a slight delay — and then burned it onto a CD when I got home.
Laymon: I remember buying it from Best Buy in Poughkeepsie. When that shit hit Speakerboxxx, I was gone!
Do you recall your first listen to it?
Abdurraqib: In some ways, yes. I mean, a thing I remember is that “Hey Ya!” had already been all over the place for at least a few weeks before the album dropped, and it was really all over the place in my little corner of the world. It was a song I could clearly recognize and appreciate as good, but I got so exhausted by hearing it. This is in 2003, too, before any white person with an acoustic guitar got on YouTube to cover it. And so, I remember having this kind of unfair aversion to The Love Below. Kinda on some “if everything sounds like THAT, I don’t wanna hear it.” Forgive the stubborn foolishness of my past self.
That said, I really immersed myself in Speakerboxxx for my first handful of listens. There’s a run of songs from “Bowtie” to “Tomb of the Boom” that I couldn’t get enough of. I’d only just gotten my first car a couple of years earlier, and I’d only just put a system in it maybe a year earlier, and so much on Speakerboxxx sounded great coming out of a car with the windows down before winter hit. To be very fair to The Love Below, I now enjoy it a great deal and got over my aversion to it fairly quickly upon hearing it for the first time.
What are your favorite tracks from the album?
Laymon: “Day in the Life of Andre Benjamin.”
Wallace: “The Rooster” stands as one of my faves now, even though it was, I’m ashamed to say, kind of a skipper for me back then. I wasn’t old enough; I didn’t have enough life experience to really get what a banger that track is. Now, one divorce, some bad knees and a decade-plus later, it hits different. I don’t think anyone has rhymed about the existential challenges of the domestic from a man’s point-of-view better than Big Boi, and I doubt anyone ever will.
On the other side, to this day, Prototype is on pretty much every playlist I make. To say that Andre was ahead of his time doesn’t even begin to cover it. He was making music that was fringe then but would later come to comprise the default elements of hip hop, R&B and electronic — that dude was just born on some grandfather shit.
OutKast is decidedly Southern, unmistakably Black and nearly impossible to summarize easily as a sound. Their music feels like its own subgenre of hip hop. While Dirty South hip hop was popping off, here was OutKast, also from the South, but also very much their own thing. They also seemed to be making music for every weird Black kid in America. Growing up, what did this pair of very Southern rappers mean to you?
Laymon: They gave me writerly confidence to try weird shit because the most inventive, soulful musical group in the world was from my region.
Abdurraqib: I grew up in Ohio with a family that had roots in New York. And so much of the hip hop I consumed, particularly in the early 1990s, was East Coast driven. Geto Boys occasionally. The Ice Cube solo joints. But they felt East Coast because of the Bomb Squad. OutKast broke something open for me as a listener, and for the older folks around me that were listening to rap. More Southern legends began to fold into the rotation. But also, like many Black folks in America, I have a relationship with the South. I also loved storytellers. And so, the entire Dungeon Family felt to me like storytellers first and foremost.
Carvell, you mentioned to me that you recently had a listening party with your kids, and that you attempted to convey to them how it was back then when that album dropped — what did you tell them?
Wallace: I told them that no one was doing this back then — that these guys were re-writing history, and that as a duo, they represented two very different but equally moving aspects of Black genius. I also gave them a little background on how the double CD was low-key drama at the time, like were they breaking up? And how in a weird way, even though it did signal a split, the choice to do it separately but release it together was beyond genius, because it captured and made clear exactly why OutKast was a project that can never be repeated — two different forms of genius from the same place heading different ways. OutKast itself was maybe a symbol of Black male split personalities. Evoking DuBois’ double consciousness may put too fine a point on it, but, in my opinion, not by much!
What artists working today do you think owe a debt of gratitude to Outkast?
Laymon: Kendrick learned well, thank goodness.
Wallace: Lol, literally who doesn’t? Every day I think of a new group and how they relate. Everyone from The Internet to Childish Gambino, to NBA YoungBoy, to fucking Shawn Mendes. Their influence is the water, and we are all just the fish.
Do you have any particular memories of OutKast impacting your life directly? Like, how did they make your world feel bigger, better or brighter?
Abdurraqib: I always appreciated the multimodal nature of OutKast. Like most folks, I came to them in late 1993, early 1994. By the time they returned to us in 1996, it was like they were operating with an entirely different toolbox. And they were so young — their youth often gets lost in conversations about their early brilliance. Kind of when people are like, “Oh wow, Van Morrison was 23 when he made Astral Weeks.” OutKast were barely into their 20s when they made ATLiens! Isn’t that absolutely impossible to think about? I remember marveling at that when I was really young — that these dudes were definitely older than me, but about the age of my oldest siblings, or the OGs in my neighborhood.
Were you a big Outkast fan, prior to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below?
Laymon: Yes indeed. ATLiens is my favorite album ever.
Wallace: I’m ashamed to say I slept on OutKast for far too long. I mean, I heard the hits, but I was still very East Coast, New York-centric. Having been partially raised in L.A., I definitely made room in my (lol) CD folder for a smattering of West Coast bangers, but my orientation at the time didn’t include a whole lot from the South. What woke me up was the video for “B.O.B.” When I saw that shit, it was like, “Whatever that world is, I want to live in it.” That’s when I realized the South definitely had something to say.
Abdurraqib: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below maybe isn’t even in my top three OutKast albums (apologies!). One of the biggest five-mic arguments I can remember happening on my Columbus school bus and in my Columbus neighborhood was the argument that broke out when Aquemini got five mics. I think ATLiens had gotten 4.5, and I knew so many people who felt like the five mic rating for Aquemini was a corrective, because Aquemini was at best equal to ATLiens.
That said, those two top the mountain for me, in some order, usually flipping depending on what mood I’m in. I love Aquemini because of how it feels like an OutKast album where Andre and Big Boi are really going at each other. I love that in a rap duo. It’s a competitive genre, after all. And why wouldn’t that competition extend to the interior of a group? There’s a point in every duo’s run of albums that I love — where the play fighting becomes a little more intense, the punches to the ribs get a little heavier. It happened with Salt-N-Pepa on Blacks’ Magic. It kinda happened with Mobb Deep on Hell on Earth, but it’s a little tougher in a group with an MC like Prodigy and a producer like Havoc.
What I’m saying is that I love Aquemini because it’s the album where the play fighting becomes a little more serious. But also, anyone who has ever had that moment with a sibling or a loved one knows there’s a difference between serious and real. Sure, the punches are hitting harder and a lamp might get broken, but it’s still about who is willing to cede some ground first before any irreversible physical or emotional damage is done. Andre and Big Boi were challenging each other, not trying to end each other.
Sometimes on that album, though, they’d be going at it with their verses and someone like Raekwon would slip in, eat all their food and then slip out.
Nowadays, there’s a far fuller blossom of strange and beautiful Blackness available, which also means it’s hard to explain exactly how far out there OutKast was when they put out their first few albums. As far as weirdness in hip hop, it was pretty much Kool Keith and them. What did you and your friends think of OutKast when they were making their early albums?
Laymon: OutKast always meant revision. I knew they’d never give us the same song or album twice. They weren’t following the market.
Abdurraqib: I don’t know if I ever thought they were all that weird. I thought Biz Markie was weird, but beyond that, I didn’t understand many rappers to be weird. Some of this was because I was still pretty young and not necessarily popular or cool. And when that’s the case, it’s easy to imagine yourself as the weirdest person alive, even when you aren’t. So if anything, I thought that they were a group evolving into different versions of themselves so seamlessly that it gave me hope to one day achieve adolescent coolness.
Wallace: It meant weirdness that wasn’t divorced from street-level, club-level bangers. Which, with all due respect to Kool Keith, a genuine hero, I didn’t quite get from him.
When “Hey Ya!” broke out and became a monster pop hit, OutKast was suddenly a group grandmas knew about. Was it funny for you to see/hear the Jessicas and Chads and the rest of the khaki-clad brigade and their parents all singing along to Andre 3000?
Laymon: Nah. The song was weirder than the reaction to the song. The song was jamming. I just didn’t ever imagine Andre making that song.
Wallace: I remember being at a very white lesbian wedding in like 2005, and “The Way You Move” had the whole dance floor sweating. I never like being the one Black dude dancing in a room full of white people for obvious reasons, but in this moment, I didn’t give a fuck. Maybe it was the open bar, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. There was something about their artistry that was so pure, so complete and so powerful that it didn’t seem like there was any wrong way to enjoy it. Like, let the khakis and grandmas turn up. Who the fuck cares? They can’t corrupt this! It’s just too strong! Maybe it was just the open bar.
Let’s say you’ve just stepped into an elevator of a skyscraper. The doors close, and you see that it’s just you and Big Boi and Andre 3000, alone. They ask you to spit bars from your favorite song of theirs. Which song do you pick and what bars?
Laymon: “My mind warps and bends…” from “Aquemini.”
Abdurraqib: I feel like there are songs you know, and there are songs you KNOW you know. With that said, I could spit “Slump” front to back with ease.
Wallace: I mean not to be basic, but I feel like if I just get to hear Big Boi say, “The way she moved reminded me of a brown stallion horse with skates on / Smooth like a hot comb on nappy-ass hair / I walked up on her and was almost paralyzed / Her neck was smelling sweeter than a plate of yams with extra syrup / Eyes beaming like four karats a piece just blinding a nigga,” I’ll be pretty satisfied with the nature of my life.