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The Technicolor Legacy of Outkast’s ‘Stankonia’

On Halloween in 2000, Atlanta’s favorite sons unleashed their bravest album yet, one that changed the trajectory of the group and charted a new course for 21st-century music. It also planted the seeds for the end of the group as we knew them. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Built in 1964, the Bowen Homes were a sprawling public housing development located on the western outskirts of Atlanta, in the shadow of industrial parks and the former Bankhead Highway in an area now known as Brookview Heights. Its 104 buildings—painted green, yellow, red, and blue—comprised 650 units and at any given time housed more than 1,000 residents. The property’s 54 acres also contained an elementary school and library, but like many Atlanta housing projects, the Bowen Homes were mostly known for illegal activity: In an eight-month period in 2007 and 2008, police tracked 168 violent crimes in the area, including five killings. Many of those crimes could be traced back to the drug trade, which had permeated the Bowen Homes’ fences for decades. The buildings may have been colorful, but for many, the day-to-day outlook was anything but.

André Benjamin spent part of his childhood in an apartment building located directly across from the Bowen Homes. His mother, Sharon Benjamin-Hodo, did everything to make sure her son wasn’t trapped by the same circumstances as many in the development. At her first chance, she transferred him to a high-performing middle school, where he’d join the drama club and the student council. In Roni Sarig’s 2007 book about Southern hip-hop, Third Coast, André says the competing influences helped make him who he is: “I grew up right across from the projects, but by going to school with white kids, I got into skateboarding and the music and everything. … I’d come home and might hear Eric B. & Rakim or Too Short, then go to school and hear another thing. I was influenced by both.” André had a full palette to paint with, and when he got the opportunity to apply it to the Bowen Homes in 2000 as one half of Outkast, he didn’t waste a brushstroke.

The video for “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” begins with André jumping out of bed in a cramped room covered by Jimi Hendrix, Shaft, and Run-DMC posters. He’s shirtless, wearing bright yellow bell-bottoms and a bandana, bearing a more-than-slight resemblance to one of his idols. Within seconds, he’s spilling down the stairs of a duplex, and then through its front door. Suddenly, he’s outside in the sprawling Bowen Homes complex, being followed by a group of children as he sprints down a hill—as Atlanta rapper T.I. said in a 2015 MTV mini-documentary, “the same hills of grass that we saw shootouts occur.” But there’s one key distinction between the hills T.I. knew and the ones Outkast brought to the screen: In the “B.O.B.” video, the Bowen Homes grass is purple—psychedelic and vibrant. “They made it look so artsy and beautiful when this is a very treacherous trap,” T.I. said.

On Saturday, Stankonia, the album that birthed “B.O.B.,” turns 20. It’s loaded with the kinds of unexpectedly artsy and beautiful moments that caught T.I. off guard. It’s an album full of contradictions—one that contains emphatically pro-women anthems and another song called “We Luv Deez Hoez”; an album that’s bored with hip-hop while still featuring some of the best rapping ever committed to wax. Stankonia was created by two 25-year-olds who knew each other from high school, but who were at very different places artistically and spiritually. They had total control for the first time in their careers, which meant they had only each other to control their most self-indulgent impulses. It could’ve been a disaster, but instead it sold a boatload of copies and changed the perception of what hip-hop was capable of. Yet as triumphant as it was, it may have also been the beginning of the end of one of the genre’s most important groups.

But to understand Stankonia, you have to understand what came before it. André and Big Boi’s first album arrived in 1994, not long after the pair had impressed Organized Noize producer Rico Wade in a meeting by trading rhymes over A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” instrumental for nearly 10 minutes. By then, Atlanta had already produced nationally famous rappers such as bass artists Tag Team and Raheem the Dream and the Afrocentric poets Arrested Development. But Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik announced a new, more vivid version of Atlanta, one with the glamour of player’s balls and ’77 Sevilles, but also one where “hootie hoo” became a call to alert the trap about an approaching task force. The album would go platinum, and Outkast would be lauded as the best new act at the most infamous award ceremony in hip-hop history. Their presence at the 1995 Source Awards caused great controversy among the Madison Square Garden crowd, but amid the boos, Dre offered a rallying cry for his oft-overlooked region: “The South got somethin’ to say.”

The duo followed up their debut with 1996’s excellent ATLiens, a project with one foot in boom-bap and the other in outer space, boldly going where few rappers had gone since Afrika Bambaataa. But Outkast’s third album would change the trajectory of their career. Released in 1998, Aquemini is a masterpiece: mystical, but rooted in the Deep South, replete with deft storytelling, a simmering defiance, and unforgettable harmonica and horn lines. It was adventurous, on one track bringing in Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon to trade rugged verses and on another exploring the ideas of freedom and salvation for nearly nine minutes. The Source, at the time considered the bible of hip-hop, bestowed it with the rare, prestigious five-mic rating, a first for a Southern rap record. “Rosa Parks” would earn the group a Grammy nomination. The South had said something—Outkast ascended the hip-hop summit, and they did it on their terms, selling a lot of records without selling out, and crafting an iconic album.

So what comes after a perfect portrait? For Outkast, the answer was to invent some new colors.

Picture this: You’re Big Boi. It’s some time in early 2000, and you’re in the Midtown Atlanta studio you and your musical partner recently bought out of foreclosure from Bobby Brown of all people—one which you’ve rechristened Stankonia. That aforementioned partner, who now records under the name André 3000, calls you to the studio’s A-room. You walk in to find him hunched over an E-mu SP-1200, a digital sampler used by the likes of Pete Rock and Lord Finesse to create some of the more traditional-sounding hip-hop classics of the ’90s. Except the beat Dre’s working on sounds anything but traditional: It’s 155 beats per minute, nearly twice as fast as a song like ATLien’s “Elevators (Me and You)”; it contains elements of drum ‘n’ bass and gospel; there are bridges and buildups and breakdowns unlike anything you’ve heard. André asks you, Big Boi, if it’s jammin’. What do you say?

Chances are you’d respond how the man born Antwan Patton says he did in real life: “Do I think it’s jammin’? Let’s bust on it.”

Some of the more distinctive parts of “B.O.B” would take shape in the coming months—André’s verse that thunders like a million elephants, the choir, the goddamn guitar solo that intertwines with Mr. DJ’s scratches—but that early session was indicative of how Outkast’s approach to LP4 would be much different than what preceded it. Buying the studio—formerly named Bosstown Studios, where Organized Noize and a teenage Outkast recorded early songs like “Crumblin’ Erb”—allowed for Big Boi and André to record sketches, tinker, indulge. It was a haven from which they could go far beyond the realm of traditional hip-hop. And, boy, were they itching to. In contemporary interviews to promote Stankonia, André couldn’t contain his contempt for what he saw as paint-by-numbers, iced-out rap. “Some people feel like if it’s not just a kick and a snare and the same one-two beat and a sample, then that’s not hip-hop,” he told Vibe in September of 2000. “But, to me, that’s boring, so I don’t wanna do that. If that’s your version, I mean, that’s cool, but you ought to listen to everything. It’d make your music better.”

By this point, Outkast had also taken greater autonomy over their production. Organized Noize, the team responsible for the bulk of the music on the first three albums, was still in the picture, but Dre and Big Boi had formed a production trio with Mr. DJ known as Earthtone III. Though, as the duo were forming a tighter musical unit, they appeared to be moving in different directions, both artistically and as people. André, the eclectic recluse, had taken to wearing wigs and drum-major fits on stage. By 2000, he’d been vegetarian for nearly five years and had sworn off drugs and alcohol. Big Boi, meanwhile, sported fatigues and bubble jackets and traveled to shows in a different caravan from André so he could smoke freely. He also frequented strip clubs until he had an idea: What if he built a strip club inside his Atlanta home? (He did, and named it the Boom Boom Room, presumably because “Stankonia” was already taken.) Outwardly, they dodged rumors that Outkast was headed toward a split—”It ain’t like this is a job, like ‘Time to make the doughnuts,’” Big Boi told Vibe—but internally, their divergent tastes made them an asset to each other. As André told Spin: “I’m always looking for what’s next for us. Big Boi makes sure that we take the people who were with us the last time where we’re going next.”

With the space to create, and the ability to trust their own and each other’s instincts, Outkast began crafting the most daring music of their career—and some of the most exhilarating music in rap history, especially from a major-label act. That begins with the lead single “B.O.B,” which detonated on radio and TV in September 2000, but the entirety of Stankonia drips with ideas and concepts rarely explored in hip-hop. André, one of the most talented rappers to ever pick up a mic, croons on what feels like most of the album’s 24 tracks, a sharp departure from his peers in an era before MCs had to be singers too. When he does spit, he tries things that artists operating at his level rarely did: Dre runs his voice through a filter to make it sound underwater on “Xplosion” and pitches it up near-Chipmunk levels on the futuristic bounce jam “Red Velvet.” On the solo showcase “?,” he rattles a propulsive triplet flow years before Atlanta upstarts Migos would even attempt anything similar.

Lyrically, the album tackled subjects in a way that mainstream hip-hop hadn’t yet seen: “I’ll Call B4 I Cum” is an ode to the female orgasm—and crucially, features two women rappers, Gangsta Boo and Eco. “Gangsta Shit,” at least as far as André is concerned, is about anything but: “We’ll pull your whole deck, fuck pulling your card,” he raps. “And still take my guitar and take a walk in the park.” And, of course, the megahit “Ms. Jackson” tackles a failed relationship through the prism of an open letter to “the baby mamas’ mamas.” It’s raw and honest, with verses from Big Boi and Dre about personal responsibility and growing out of love. (Dre’s whimsical verse rightfully gets a lot of attention, but Big Boi’s righteous defiance—the declarations that the child is “not a paycheck” and anger at not being invited to his own kid’s birthday party—echo as strongly as the forever evers.) That the subject of Dre’s verse—his ex, Erykah Badu, whom he fathered his son Seven with—appears later on “Humble Mumble” only solidifies that these are grown-up raps, an honest show of maturity in a genre that at the time was caught between thug-lite Ja Rule jams, conscious lecturing from underground acts, and Eminem’s juvenile nihilism. That Stankonia was released the same day as Jay-Z’s better-than-you-remember The Dynasty: Roc-La-Familia only further positioned Outkast as a worthy foil for the materialistic rap that dominated the airwaves.

But vocals and writing aside, the music still stands as the most exciting piece of Stankonia. The aforementioned “Gangsta Shit” takes the double-time hi-hat sound of early Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat—a style that would come to be called trap music—and adds a funk guitar. “Humble Mumble” builds to a chest-rattling drop more than a decade before EDM became obsessed with it, while “Ms. Jackson” deploys the most famous backward snares since “Paul Revere” and a wall of synths, only to clear the way for a brief rendition of “Here Comes the Bride.” “Toilet Tisha” sounds like the darkest cut Prince never recorded, while the album-closing title track plays in the same swamp as George Clinton’s Funkadelic.

Many of those far-out flourishes are attributed to Dre (though don’t sleep on his partner, a huge Kate Bush fan since he was a teen). However, the elements of Outkast’s music that made them famous over the previous half-decade are also on display throughout. At times, Stankonia plays like an amalgamation of those first three records: “So Fresh, So Clean” feels like the song you put on before the player’s ball; “We Luv Deez Hoez,” which André sits out, is a how-to guide for the lifestyle. (Take it from your instructor, Big Boi: “Yeah, I told y’all niggas / About goddamn takin’ them hoes to the Cheesecake Factory / Lettin’ them hoes order strawberry lemonade and popcorn shrimps / They ain’t goin’ do nuthin’ / But try to take all your motherfuckin’ cheese!”) “Spaghetti Junction,” named after the Tom Moreland Interchange in Atlanta, feels like it was pulled from the ATLiens cutting room floor, but knocks as hard as anything on the group’s sophomore LP. The first song, “Gasoline Dreams,” is unquestionably a new direction for the group as their most outwardly political song, but feels like a spiritual successor to Aquemini closer, “Chonkyfire,” another midtempo, guitar-driven song that imagines a world ablaze. (It should also be noted that while Dre and Big Boi add color to nearly everything they touch on Stankonia, they strip it from the cover’s monochromatic American flag.) Even some of the ideas never heard before in their music—like the outro of the title track, which descends into a chopped-and-screwed version of the chorus—are a direct nod to their Southern roots. The Mothership had left Atlanta, yes, but the duo never forgot where they came from.

The acclaim and success would soon follow their Cadillac spaceship into the stratosphere. Before Stankonia, Outkast had never scored a top-10 hit; “Ms. Jackson” reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 2001. The album itself would be certified platinum four times and earn them both a new fan base (“I’m starting to see younger faces and a lot more white people,” Big Boi told Spin at the time) and hyperbolic praise from both rap and rock critics (In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau wrote that it had “more bounce-to-the-ounce and less molasses in the jams, more delight and less braggadocio in the raps”). Eventually, they’d win two Grammys for “Ms. Jackson” and Stankonia and earn nominations for both Record and Album of the Year, the latter of which they lost to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack despite being heavy favorites. Grammys, a growing white fan base, and glowing reviews are no way to assess true impact in hip-hop, but it was clear that by fully freeing themselves, Big Boi and André had found something within, and that it was resonating. Boredom had inspired their most exhilarating work. But it wouldn’t take long for that same ennui to creep back in. And once it did, it marked the beginning of the end of the group as we came to know them.

Like the rest of Atlanta’s major public housing developments, the Bowen Homes are no longer standing. The city began dismantling its projects in the early ’90s when officials realized that Olympic Park for the 1996 Games would sit across from the Techwood and Clark Howell homes, two major complexes beset by crime and drug issues. Rather than treat the source of the problem, Atlanta decided to raze the buildings. Soon, every other major project would be bulldozed as well. Bowen was one of the last to come down, in 2009. The move was celebrated by policymakers who saw it as the end of warehoused poverty, but it was decried by residents and activists who worried about gentrification and displacement. In recent years, the city has solicited bids for a mixed-income development on the property.

Outkast themselves wouldn’t necessarily be torn down, but they also never existed in quite the same way after Stankonia. Big Boi and Dre had each recorded songs without the other before, but their fifth LP took the idea even further: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was essentially two solo albums masquerading as a double album. The pair recorded in isolation, making only scattered appearances on the other’s half, and produced two very different records. (Big Boi projected Southern hip-hop a few centuries into the future with Speakerboxxx, while Dre made a knockoff Prince record that just featured one verse of him rapping.) Naturally, both discs produced megalithic no. 1 singles, and the album would eventually be certified diamond. That’s 10 million units sold, a near-unfathomable thought in an era when artists need to game the charts just to go platinum. More Grammys would follow, and the album’s singles—Dre’s “Hey Ya!,” in particular—would reach the kind of cultural ubiquity that seemed impossible when the pair took the MARTA to that fateful early-’90s meeting with Rico Wade. But the seeds of a split were there. The two again shot down rumors of a breakup, but the collaborative process that made Stankonia something that appealed to old and new fans had been replaced by isolated recording sessions that resulted in radically different projects. Even their nonmusical pursuits spoke to the noticeable shift: Dre landed roles in movies like Be Cool and Semi Pro, while Big Boi started breeding blue-nose pit bulls.

To date, Outkast hasn’t officially divorced, but after Speakerboxxx they released just one more album together—a companion piece for the 2006 movie Idlewild, which starred the pair as Depression-era friends who grew apart as they aged. It was the group’s first tepidly received album. Aside from a few songs like “Mighty O,” it wasn’t very good, which after five straight classic albums is a minor tragedy. But more importantly, it felt like the end of something. They would appear on several other songs together, most notably the remix of UGK’s “International Players Anthem” and the Raekwon-featuring “Royal Flush.” Big Boi would continue to release solo projects and collaborations with other artists (he’s currently prepping an album with Sleepy Brown) while André has made scattered guest appearances on other rappers’ tracks. (Most powerfully, he directly referenced the seeming dissolution of the group in the excellent T.I. 2012 song “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,’” he raps.) In September, he was spotted outside a Georgia mall rocking a tactical-camo shirt and thick, graying beard, carrying a giant flute. As a duo, they’d reunite for a festival tour in 2014 to mark their 20th anniversary, only to resume their hiatus immediately afterward. It’s easier to think of that brief run as a fleeting celebration rather than a cash-grab.

In a way, this shaky, almost sad denouement enhances the legacy of Stankonia. It’s the last true Outkast album, meaning the last one that they were fully in the studio together for, working in the same direction. And because they’d never revisit some of the more eccentric aspects of the record, it’s an anomaly, both in their catalog and in its era. But the album stands out for more than its idiosyncrasies or status as an artifact. Stankonia isn’t their best project (that’s still Aquemini) and it’s not the one that appeals to the most hardcore fans (that’s ATLiens). It is, however, their most prescient, even before considering that “Bombs Over Baghdad” inadvertently became a war anthem two and a half years later. When you hear rappers singing, that’s the DNA of André they’re working with. When you read about new genreless genres, that means we’re living in the world foretold by songs like “B.O.B.” and “Slum Beautiful.” The sex positivity of “I’ll Call B4 I Cum” can be heard in everything from “WAP” to Junglepussy, while the drums of “Gangsta Shit” can be heard in, well, everything. Without the album, we likely don’t get Janelle Monáe or Frank Ocean or countless other artists, at least not the form that we know them in. Stankonia wasn’t trying to predict 21st-century music; it just showed other artists the colors they could paint with.

That’s all there in the opening moments of the “B.O.B.” video, as André is chased by a flock of smiling kids through a technicolor version of the Bowen Homes grass, a pied piper cosplaying as Hendrix. When he gets to the edge of the property—perhaps to the edge facing his childhood home—a convertible Cadillac driven by a short-haired woman with gold teeth pulls up. Without skipping a beat, Dre jumps in. He’s gone, but the kids that just tailed him are left with a renewed sense of confidence.

At least that’s what former Bowen Homes resident Shirley Hightower saw. In 2014, she recalled the day Outkast filmed the scene at the development. The kids were excited to be part of the video, but most importantly, they felt seen. And ultimately, they also felt inspired.

“They started thinking, ‘We can do this, too,’” she said.