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“The Songs Are Like Testimony”: An Interview With Big Boi From Outkast

The ATLien discusses his new album, ‘The Big Sleepover,’ plus his pet tiger, his favorite strip club, and his bond with André 3000

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A bearded Big Boi is smoking a blunt beside a placid, cerulean pool. It’s 3:03 p.m. in late October and one half of Outkast, the greatest duo in the history of hip-hop, is sitting by himself in a sun-drenched corner of the patio behind his house, hoping to find a better internet connection. He was a few minutes late to our Zoom call. A thin can of Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso sits next to him. Not exactly a southernplayalistic pose but, hey, times change. By his own admission he’s become a stereotype of midlife domesticity. “I just mastered this fucking grilled lobster recipe like a motherfucker, man,” the rapper says, a thick gold rope chain splitting the “A” on his navy-blue Atlanta Braves Nike hoodie. “I got my own air fryer coming out real soon like a George Foreman grill.”

The house, a cream-colored abode outside Atlanta, is as quiet as it’s ever been. His youngest son, Cross, just left for his third year at Oregon, where he’s a running back for the 14th-ranked Ducks. Big Boi tells me he’s turned to the studio to cope with the changes. At any given moment he’s liable to be recording or writing, perpetually sharpening his pen. He sees infinite opportunities for improvement. Is there something he’s searching for?

“I’m in competition with myself,” he admits. “I do music now for recreation. It’s purely because I want to make a new jam, I want to hear that new groove. Pushing myself with cadences and thoughts and sitting at the desk for days trying to ink out a 16-bar verse, putting thought into every line. And, I mean, it’s a certain satisfaction. It’s therapy almost, that you get from that.”

His many titles are still colder than an arctic ursine—Antwan Patton Sr., Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot, Daddy Fat Sax, Billy Ocean, Francis the Savannah Chitlin Pimp—and the MC is just as chilly too. But it’s been more than four years since his last full-length project, Boomiverse, and this genre’s as fickle as ever. Hip-hop waits for no one, not even ATLiens sent from the outer reaches of Stankonia.

On Friday he drops The Big Sleepover, made alongside frequent Dungeon Family collaborator Sleepy Brown; the project has seen its release date pushed back twice in the past two years. The record vibrates and coasts in spots, contains moments of legitimate rejuvenation, struggles to balance some political instincts that straddle the line between quaint and counterfactual, and is, overall, the rapper’s best work in more than a decade. Big can still squeeze every drop out of every syllable, like he’s the only one who actually knows how English ought to be spoken. He’s still slick as hell. That prodigious sonic palate remains intact.

The Big Sleepover is, on the whole, a reflection of the performer—good, bad, crisp, didactic, flawed, and undeniably funky. There’s probably a deeper thread here, how when we consider Big Boi in 2021, we’re pondering the very idea of artistic mortality in a genre with a growing number of middle-aged legends—that when we watch him today, what we’re really tracking are the dancing currents of life and time, and the awkward truth that they influence our idols just as much as us. Big’s still got enough highs left in his bag to pull us back from the ledge. He may not be what he was before but he ain’t done yet.

One of the things that stuck out to me about The Big Sleepover was how much it leans into your understanding of what the game is and how not to get caught up in it. At this point in your life, where do you get that kind of perspective from?

I think having kids gives you that foundation. I was out here slinging big at an early age and having babies before I was 20. I always wanted to be a great parent. I wanted to be young. I didn’t want to be old, where a kid can be at graduation, like, “Fuck you, Dad,” and I couldn’t chase them and beat their ass. Then I ended up as an empty-nester until my son came back with my grandboy, and it was quiet as hell around this motherfucker. I’d be locking myself in the studio, just record and record. I got so much music in the vault. Now, it’s a type of balance again to where, OK, I still want to get home and see my grandson. It’s just a foundation again.

Did you make records for us or for you?

I got to jam to it first. I mean, I’m a music lover, so if it makes me giggle and be like, “Oh, shit,” that’s when you know you got you some stuff, man. I don’t have to go suck up no sauce to try to do something. I got a certain type of recipe over here, man. You don’t need a whole bunch of additives and preservatives. I like to say, “Everything I do is organically created, never genetically modified.” As long as you just keep it like that, the people gon’ always want it, because there ain’t going to be nothing else like it out there. Some songs I might marinate for three, four years. I got a playlist where I just put unreleased beats on it, and I mixed it in with some of my favorite songs, might be Prince, Michael Jackson, anything. So, during the course of the week, certain songs might pop up and I might go, “Oh,” and put it to the side, and then it might trigger something.

Where do you think that comes from? Obviously now, in hindsight, you can look at all the success you’ve had on your own or with André, and it ends up justifying your instincts as a creator. But there’s got to be a point where you weren’t able to lean on that track record but still found a way not to bend. That’s not an innate thing, is it?

I was the first nephew, the first grandson. I grew up around a lot of adults. So I absorbed games from my uncles who were hustlers; my grandmother was a hustler. Those are the people I was around when my mom was at work. My dad was in the military, and I just caught on quick.

You mentioned your grandmother. She’s somebody who you’ve talked about before in your work. What’s the wisest thing she ever said to you?

Before she passed away a couple of years ago, she was just like, “Your voice is for the world.” I wanted to go to school to be a child psychologist, because I always wanted to help kids. I was going to go to NYU, and I graduated with a 3.68 in real life at Tri-Cities High School. But through my music, I was able to actually be the soundtrack to the lives of people, just create moments in people’s lives.

Your connection to Savannah is such a big part of your music. I know your grandfather was in the Air Force and grew up in Savannah like you. What are some of the things that he taught you, showed you, that are still with you today?

He used to take us hunting, fishing, crabbing. I mean, it’s all that Gullah Geechee lifestyle.

My grandfather actually grew up in Savannah. He lived in Yamacraw I think, in the ’30s—I may be getting the name wrong.

Nah, that’s it. Wow. I’m from there, too. I’m from there. Yamacraw was maybe four or five minutes from where I grew up in Frazier Homes, 605 B West Gwinnett Court. And Yamacraw was the rival project. It was Kate Homes, Frazier Homes, and Yamacraw. And Yamacraw was closest to the bridge that bridged Savannah to South Carolina. And it was rough over there, really rough. Your granddaddy from that real-deal sinkhole Savannah shit.

Oh, yeah, man, I know it. He actually lived over in one of the Sea Islands in South Carolina as a kid, too. So he can talk all that Geechee shit. I don’t understand it, but he’ll just go and do it on a dime.

My whole family talked like that.

So I’ve seen you mention before that you really gravitated toward poetry as a kid. Who were some of your favorite artists?

Langston Hughes. I was reading a lot of song lyrics, like Kate Bush song lyrics, trying to understand songs, just as a writer. Someone who could express thoughts even before putting rhyme to beat. On the first album [Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik], the Dungeon was so packed. A lot of people don’t know this—I used to go out, there’s a garage outside where we shot the “Benz or Beamer” video. And there was a rocking chair in there. I used to write our rhymes, not to the beat, just write them there. So when it came time to lay it, I would have to make my raps go to whatever beat it was. That’s how my style was developed, the on-beat/off-beat style. I would have to cater my words to the actual beats. I just really started writing to the beat, actually, to songs a couple of albums ago.

What’s the one memory from back in high school with André that you’re most likely to think about now?

So we were preps. The school was infested with gangs and stuff, and it was like five of us preppy guys wearing Polo shorts, carrying tennis rackets, and just wearing just real outrageous stuff. [One day] the other three of our friends decided that they wanted to be bank robbers. So they robbed the liquor store, and got caught. They got a lot of time for that shit, but we just wasn’t with them that day. And then there were two of us after that.

That’s heavy.

Yeah, it was destiny. After that, it was just me and Dre all the time, and my little brother was with us. That was 11th grade, I think.

I grew up on your music, so I’m biased, but you two have always struck me as family who happen to rap together, rather than just two professional group-mates. It seems like every interview that you’re in, somebody is trying to pry into your relationship with André. I think about it and I wonder how I would feel if somebody was asking me about my relationship with my brother. Does it ever feel overly probing or just weird?

I mean, it’s weird, but you all grew up with us. So we’re like the cousins, the country cousins, and you’re like, “Hey, man, what’s going on?” Since the world don’t get a chance to see him as much as I do or communicate with him like I do. We talk all the time. He’s my brother, and music is just something, a gift, that we shared and we shared it with the world, and now we’re just living right now. It’s nothing more, nothing less. I mean, we just went to go see my boy play ball a couple of weeks ago. He just finished up a couple of movie projects, because he’s done a couple of features and things like that. Outkast is everlasting to the dirt. Whether or not we’re making music, just know that there’s not nothing funky going on. There’s never been nothing funky going on. People just drew conclusions and started running with shit. And then the whole time we were just like, “Man, look at this shit.”

Do you think that your fans understand who you actually are?

I think, through this age of social media, they get a more personalized view of what I let people see. I’ve been this way the whole time. I always been the family guy, always with the kids, always a certain natural sense of humor. My life is dark comedy. They’ve been trying to get me to do shows and shit, but I don’t want to just overexpose myself. You got to preserve your superpowers, man. You can’t just be out here and give them everything and become a god damn game show host. They can learn a little bit maybe from the music and then from what I show them on my socials, but they don’t know everything.

And you like it like that, though, right?

Yeah. Some shit’s just got to be private.

Do you think you’re guarded?

Like guarded …


Not really. The songs are like testimony. I kind of put it out there a lot, and what was going on, whether it was about a death in the family or relationships. I can express what I’m feeling if I’m going through something, so it comes out naturally like that. You just got to find a slick way to say it. And that’s the challenge, unlocking the slickness to convey your thoughts without sounding like you’re on fucking Dr. Phil.

OK. So this is where I gotta do real journalism. No dodging my question. Magic City or Blue Flame?

Yeah, man. I mean, today—it could change by the day—but Blue Flame. It’s hood hood and the girls, they are … I mean … uh … [Big Boi ponders the correct verbiage] I like them thick. I think last time I went to Magic, they’ve been going for the … uh, what I’mma call it. It’s a certain type, but I like what you call, we call it a dum down here. We want that grown lady, fine ass, great smarts, all that shit. Let me see it.

Interesting. You may be starting a civil war. I had read that you used to go down to a strip club and you would play your stuff when y’all were gearing up for a release. You would go to see how people reacted, if the records were having the … desired effect. What, specifically, is it about that space that serves as a good indicator for if your music’s popping or if it’s a dub?

That’s where the records are broke, in the strip club. It ain’t nothing like looking at warm bodies of people having a good-ass time, the DJ, the sound system banging, the lights. And we’d be in the studio and be like, we would go to the club, like, shit, what we did that day, let’s take it. Even if it was just a verse and a hook, give it to the DJ and play it. They go crazy, we go back to the studio and finish that shit.

I’ve heard from sources that you are a man of many pets. Which one of your pets is the one that just does not listen to you in any way?

My tiger. I have a tiger named Bodhi. And I got her four months ago, and my stupid ass thought I was going to be able to bring a tiger into my house with my Rottweilers and my Bengal cat. She was a rescue and I got her at the sanctuary, and she was stronger than my Rottweiler. She was four months old. So I had to go on the road and do some things, so the guy told me, “Just leave your vest,” I had a bubble vest, Polo vest, Goose vest, and he’s like, “So she’ll remember your scent.” So I spent the whole day with her, was going up and visiting her every week, walking her and all that. Then I let fucking three months go by without seeing her. And I went out there and the bitch turned into a full-grown tiger. And I’m terrified of my own fucking tiger right now. It’s heartbreaking, man, because I just remember when she was little and I’d just pet her and shit. Now, I’m scared to even put my hand on her. No bullshit.

How big is it right now?

She is about the size of five Rottweilers.

Oh, shit.

A couple hundred pounds.

Yeah. She’s in charge.

The teeth are about the size of my pinky, for real. My mom was so upset. “You can’t bring that tiger into your house.” I was like, “Yeah.” So I didn’t bring her home to my mom. I thought I would be able to put the tiger in my truck and ride to my house, man. The tiger’s so frisky, man. I just love animals. They want me to buy this zoo up in North Georgia, and I was thinking about it, too. It’s just so far from the city and my studio, and it’s very time-consuming to me. I’m seeing that you have to spend a lot of time with these animals to be able to be around them all day, every day like that. So whenever I get some time, I got some land, I’m going to build something real nice

What’s the thing about the craft, the work, that excites you the most right now—that makes it feel just as worth doing now as it did when you were 16 years old?

When you can create something and have it to yourself for a couple of years and just hitting the stage and then seeing the people react to what you created over and over again and singing the songs and happy, and just like, “Oh my fucking God,” that’s the satisfaction right there.