Written by David Turner (@dalatudalatu)
Outkast are back! A victory for popular, quality music if there ever was one and not because the duo will bring back southern lyricism or da art of storytelling but their arguably one of the best rap entities ever, so of course people are excited to see them at Coachella and whatever other sweaty expensive-as-hell festivals they’ll be touring this summer. But for the Post-Woodstock ‘99 babies that weren’t around for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik or Stankonia with their 2000 breakthrough “Mrs. Jackson,” it makes sense they’d wonder: “Who Is Outkast?”
This question spawned a now deleted Tumblr page devoted to shaming those too young to remember when Bill Clinton was president and Will Smith wasn’t just the uncool dad of Jayden and Willow. The site might’ve assumed it is mocking ignorance, but in reality it was stating the obvious that knowing rap history isn’t a prerequisite for a social media account. These kids aren’t asking “who is Drake” or “who is Miley Cyrus,” they’re unsure about the identity of a group who haven’t had a Top 40 hit since 2004 with “Roses,” and, of course, who the fuck remembers “Roses that smell poo-ooo-oo?”
If a young female rap fan was born in 1999 that would make her 1 when Stankonia came out and not even in 1st grade after the national sensation that was “Hey Ya.” If she missed those moments then ignorance of the group makes sense, as Outkast have done little since 2003’s Speakerboxxx / The Love Below to propagate their legacy. They put out Idlewild, a quickly forgotten movie and soundtrack, and certainly “The Mighty O,” as a single, would make little impression on grade schoolers when T.I., Wayne and Kanye were climbing the commercial ranks. Recently Big Boi released a couple of solo albums to much critical praise, but little commercial appeal, and Andre 3000 has kept penning high profile guest verses, but those at this point have very little to do the Outkast legacy.
The other factor playing against the duo is that if their own hiatus didn’t push them to obscurity, 2014 rap bares little of their overt sonic or stylistic touches. They don’t have much to do with the Trap sound of places like Atlanta and Chicago, nor do they have much connection to the Post-Swag that continues to filter onto southern radio playlist. Kanye and Drake certainly wouldn’t shy away from giving the group props, they’ve broken off so far onto their own rap continents that one can miss the racial and emotional back-and-forths that was so deeply ingrained in Outkast that continued into later rappers’ work.
In terms of groundbreaking southern acts right now they feel more like a 2 Live Crew than an UGK or even No Limit/Cash Money Records, where the former was important and will still get random call outs (French Montana’s “Pop That”), but they don’t seem to have a collective hold on imagination of rappers in the 2010s. Where UGK and 90s No Limit/Cash Money Records can lay claim over almost all of the rap music in 2014 from slang, beat production, rapping styles and even those visual aesthetics have held more sway than the Funk inspired ideas of Outkast’s later works.
Outkast songs don’t even figure heavily onto rap stations, because while “Mrs. Jackson” and “Hey Ya” were big hits they were more Pop than Rap. Where a last evening rap mix on southern rap can pull up over a dozen hits from T.I., Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne or even just going back and doing an old No Limit or Cash Money mix, when was the last time one heard “Rosa Parks,” or for that matter any Outkast song, on the radio? All southern rappers that claim lyricism will reserve a place for Outkast—Isaiah Rashad being the most recent with his album having a song called “West Savannah,” but very few rarely sound like them or really pick up the musical ideas they were using in the 90s.
So how will the rap and pop world re-embraces the duo, as a duo and no longer separate rap god father figures? A lot of the racial and emotional conflicts that might seem unique to this generation of post-Kanye rappers already existed within Outkast. Yet the radio moved past their music once they stopped making it. The group’s musical influence seem to do more with wordplay and an intangible cool than synth presets and drum patterns, for better or worse. Do they even have adlibs? And if they don’t, are they even rappers in 2014?