Despite being the best Southern hip-hop artist because they transcended the South both sonically and lyrically (in a way that contemporaries UGK and Goodie Mob haven’t and have never), they have a ton of problematic albums, with Stankonia as their most problematic. Take my word on it: Speakerboxxx / The Love Below offers a better killer/filler ratio, more experimentation and more successful experimentation at that, no or less skippable skits (sidebar: I once had a manager who concluded “BREAK!” at the end of every team meeting; no one liked him), and with the exception of “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson” the pop rap attempts of Stankonia – “I’ll Call Before I Come” and “We Luv Deez Hoez” – are worthless, and I shudder because I know there exists some people who give half-assed listens to Drake and run back to this record to listen to “real” hip-hop. The only useful skit is “?,” which will be expanded on Speakerboxxx / The Love Below anyway.
But to be clear, Stankonia survives through its two singles, both stunning, shining examples of postmodern hip-hop. You might remember the falsetto-ed soul and sing-along choruses of “Ms. Jackson” and the indelible “Forever, forever ever, FOREVER EVER?” but even forgetting those, the song packs so much detail. There’s the joyful vocals in the background, whooping into crescendos; the indelible piano line; the funky bass line; sonic details like the puppies yipping (“You say it’s puppy love”) and dogs woofing (“We say it’s full grown”), birds chirping (“You can plan a pretty picnic”) and I’ve long thought that the drumming sounds inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” (more on Hendrix later, and it’s clear that Hendrix might be Andre’s biggest non-hip-hop and not-named-Prince (himself inspired by Hendrix anyway) musical muse). And as expected, one of the greatest rappers of all time kills it: “Ten times out of nine, now if I’m lying, find / The quickest muzzle throw it on my mouth and I’ll decline”; “My intentions were good, I wish I could / Become a magician to abracadabra all the sadder…” (he rhymes “abracadabra” with “sadder”), the way he just continues on with the final couplet so that he can say all that he wants to say so that it no longer constitutes a couplet. Big Boi, as expected, is solid.
And “B.O.B.” is a better example, and here’s what [Stuart Berman had to say for its write-up as Pitchfork’s best song of the 2000s (NB: it was also Pitchfork’s best song of 2000-2004): “’B.O.B.’ is not just the song of the decade—it is the decade … In “B.O.B”‘s booty-bass blitzkrieg, we hear an obliteration of the boundaries separating hip-hop, metal, and electro, setting the stage for a decade of dance/rock crossovers. We hear André 3000 and Big Boi fire off a synapse-bursting stream of ripped-from-the-headlines buzzwords (“Cure for cancer/ Cure for AIDS”), personal anecdotes (“Got a son on the way by the name of Bamboo”) and product placements (“Yo quiero Taco Bell”) that read like the world’s first Twitter feed. We hear four minutes of utter fucking chaos yielding to a joyously optimistic denouement (a point reinforced by the Stankonia cover’s re-imagination of the American flag, which anticipates a White House set to be painted black).” I personally disagree with its placement (it’s not even OutKast’s best song that decade), but it’s hard to disagree with the logic; if you have any doubts of the song’s postmodernity (that is, genre blending until no primary genre becomes evident), the rapping is over before the halfway mark. After that, it’s a blaze of Hendrixian-like guitar that lasts a minute before electro-gospel to save us because we weren’t worthy enough. Oh yeah: “Thunder pounds when I stomp the ground / Like a million elephants with silverback orangutans”; “So now we sittin’ in a drop-top, soakin’ wet / In a silk suit, trying not to sweat / Hit somersaults without the net / But this’ll be the year that we won’t forget”; every “WOO!”, “OWW!”, “HOT!,” “1-9-9-9!”; Andre slays it.
See, if every song were on the levels of those two songs, I’d slap an A+ on this bad boy too, but they’re not, and this album has a reputation that makes it seem like they are. The discrepancy in quality between those two songs and the album’s other highlights is staggering. Add to that the fact that Stankonia contains the aforementioned awkward attempts at pop rap, the most annoying beat these boys have ever spat over in “Snappin’ & Trappin’”, “Toilet Tisha,” which is the most over-the-top performance about suicide ever that you end up questioning whether they’re making fun of the subject matter, and the title track, which is a 7-minute snoozefest. And kinetic beat aside, I’ve never understood what was so good about “Red Velvet,” apparently a highlight.
The other highlights that bump this into A- territory: the rave-up of “Gasoline Dreams” that hits harder sonically than anything that follows with the exception of “B.O.B.”; the hook of “So Fresh, So Clean” (whose melody just continues through the verses; probably their laziest song); the ominous riff throughout the verses of “Xplosion” and the guitar ‘hand grenade’ punctuating throughout its choruses in the left channel. After “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.,” the best song is “Humble Mumble.” Dig the calming twinkles under Big Boi’s verse; dig the beat change appropriate for Andre’s super-staccato verse (“To put that bitch in slower motion, got the potion and the antidote and a quote for collision the decision: do you want to live or wanna exist?”), and how it reverts back for Erykah’s verse, but delegates those twinkles further to the background in lieu of scratches. And the most underrated song is “Slum Beautiful,” which I never hear mentioned, probably because it’s a lot weirder than anything else on the album, where OutKast and Cee-Lo (from Goodie Mob, whose verse opens with “Unbelievably, brilliant beautiful you / You’re looking deliciously divine darling”) rap over a beat that seems completely unrappable; outside of the drums, it’s just an airy synth that can’t ground anyone.
The shorter version: two great songs worth everything that’s been written about them and more, a few good songs, one really catchy chorus, and not nearly enough to call a 24-song album perfect.