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“In My Mind I Was Already Gone”: The Endless End of Outkast

Twenty years after the release of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, we chart how the creation of André 3000 and Big Boi’s fifth studio album became the start of Outkast’s ending.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not hard to picture Prince rolling his eyes. This was Friday, the first weekend of Coachella, in April 2014; Muse and Arcade Fire were headlining the next two days, but it would be safe to assume that tens of thousands of people in Indio had come solely to see the first Outkast performance since the first W. Bush term. The duo’s last proper album, already more than a decade old at that point, had been a barely veiled divorce filing, André’s half an 80-minute slog of barely veiled Prince karaoke. It won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and was certified Diamond by the RIAA, but left people wondering what “the André solo album” would sound like, conveniently ignoring the fact that they’d just been given the André solo album.

To say the first stop on the Outkast reunion tour went over poorly would be extraordinarily gentle. (I was working at what was then known as the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Outkast had been scheduled to play the weekend of that June’s BET Awards; in a production meeting the day after the Coachella set, our boss said that the assumption among the higher-ups was that they were going to pull out. As far as I could tell, this was based on vibes alone.) In some ways, the performance was an interesting distillation of André’s uneasy relationship with fame: He was dour and removed during the marquee songs, most animated when dancing onstage to Future’s “Same Damn Time”—a natural endorsement of a second-generation Dungeon Family member, but to his more stylistically conservative fans a crude compromise of style, even of ideology. By the time the set reached its “depressingly unceremonious finale,” The Guardian wrote, André “appeared to have given up.” This was not a case of the public misunderstanding an artist’s provocation. “This is horrible,” André recalled, to The New York Times, thinking early in the set. “In my mind I was already gone to my hotel room halfway through.”

So Prince waited a few days before calling. He and Paul McCartney had been standing in the wings of the stage while André sleepwalked through “Skew It on the Bar-B” and the title track from Aquemini. The artists had never spoken before. “When you come back, people want to be wowed,” Prince told the rapper. “And what’s the best way to wow people? Just give them the hits.” In recounting the conversation, André sounds appreciative of the advice—and for the challenge Prince posed. (“You’re a grown man,” André remembers him saying. “You’re either going to do it or you’re not.”) A beat later, André tells the Times that “nostalgia is a cage.”

To understand Outkast, you first have to dispense with the straw men: the people who cast Southern rap as an inferior subgenre but grant these Atlantans as the exception; the ones who caught on only with “Ms. Jackson,” or the ones who gave up when André and Big Boi became “some aliens or some genies or some shit”; the partisans for either MC; the critics who could process them only as the harbingers of some perpetually arriving future. The point is not to shadowbox. The point is that, by 2003, Outkast had become one of the most totemic acts in rap history by making records that wove together different strands of culture while standing just apart from it. (The player-and-the-poet tension they referred to again and again was vital to their dynamic, but so was the sense that you might run into one of them at the club and the other only on the moon.) As Antwan Patton and André Benjamin were closing out their first decade as professional artists—a decade that had seen them grow more inescapable as their work became more insular, a confounding correlation/causation loop—they found themselves itching to move beyond the project they’d begun as teenagers, one by mutating his creative process in search of formal intrigue, the other by leveraging familiar points of style to process the awkward transition to something just short of middle age.

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was released on September 23, 2003, and tempting as it may be to frame it as the end of one era—in Outkast’s career, of course, but also an era of hip-hop, and of the CD-sales economy—it could be more accurately understood as the beginning of their long, drawn-out separation. A conscious uncoupling. The delicate balance that made the first four Outkast LPs so tantalizing had been upset and could never be recovered; in the years since this bizarre quasi-climax, each half of the group has come to sound more like the focus-grouped idea of himself than the frequently conflicted young man who appeared from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik through Stankonia. Some of this can be ascribed to aging, some to the shifting economic incentives of music in the streaming era, and some to the way nearly all artists hit a point of diminishing invention. But for a group so frequently misread, it’s fitting that the irreparable fissure was mistaken for a crowning success.

2014 BET Experience At L.A. LIVE - OutKast, A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, K. Michelle, August Alsina & Ty Dolla $ign Presented By Sprite
Outkast performs in Los Angeles on June 28, 2014
Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET

The shape came in part because André couldn’t figure out how to use Pro Tools. Sometime after he and Big Boi dropped Stankonia, with its frayed edges and intermittent brilliance (and the duo’s first no. 1 hit, the coy but mournful “Ms. Jackson”), André left Atlanta for L.A., where he planned to pursue a career in film and television. He hadn’t abandoned music altogether. In fact, he’d enlisted Outkast’s longtime engineer, John Frye, to help him set up a makeshift home studio—a necessity not only because he’d moved away from most of his collaborators, but also because he didn’t like the idea of a traditional studio’s normal clot of hangers-on crowding the control room while he tried to perfect his falsetto on one of the love songs that kept springing up, half formed, in his head. So he’d walk around the new home humming melodies into microcassettes until it was time to track the actual vocals.

And that’s where the then-new software came in. Because André was recording alone for a period, and because he was unsure of how to pause his takes and punch back in, he recorded a number of these early drafts in full: The noodly “Pink & Blue,” for example, came out as one uninterrupted block. André and Big Boi had recorded their earliest demos themselves, looping beats on tape decks and laying animated two-tracks, but had been fortunate to fall in with the production trio Organized Noize almost immediately. “Experiments” is too grandiose a word for most of the songs on The Love Below—they’re closer to paint by numbers than genuine discovery—but much of the LP’s charm comes from the sense that it was stitched together by hand, an artist quite literally fumbling around in the dark.

Across the country, André’s partner was approaching things about as differently as possible. Almost exactly two decades after recording for what would become Speakerboxxx got underway, I interviewed Big Boi for another publication about his creative process. He told me that, since he and André had put aside the animosity from their lunchroom battles and formed Outkast at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, he’s done all his writing on extra-long yellow legal pads, noting in the margins the time of day when he started and stopped writing each verse. There is no waiting around for the muse; Big Boi clocks in and clocks out. He will periodically look back over these pages not only to find the sharpest couplets to repurpose elsewhere, but to see what patterns emerge from his work habits: Is he writing his best during the day, or deep into the night? Is he on point? Depressed? Both?

One of the reasons Big Boi had become such a compelling artist was his willingness to let doubt and inner turmoil bubble up during this otherwise rigid routine. This continued as he began to put together records without his foil, even as he was lapsing, more and more frequently, into an uncomplicated, throwback pimp persona—it’s what had him driving one morning from his house to his mother’s, playing on a loop a song whose short verses about imagined incarcerations and real Christmastime economic peril are interrupted but what Big Boi would later call “a Muppets type of hook”: “Might as well have fun, ’cause your happiness is done / And your goose is cooked.” He sat in his mom’s driveway, “blasting” the record until she came outside. They had a long conversation; she loved the work in progress. Big Boi called it “Unhappy.”

The paired-solos format was never a foregone conclusion. Both artists recorded constantly—Frye, the engineer, estimates that they eventually amassed around 120 songs that were not merely skeletons, but “very far along”—and the plan, for some time, was to drop each record as a solo debut. Then there was the notion that all this music would soundtrack a film, or films; at one point, everyone in the studio figured the songs could end up intertwined in the manner of the first four Outkast LPs. They had always included songs that featured only one of the two members, the logic went—this would simply tweak the formula.

Intertwining the two albums might have mitigated the longest, oddest digressive stretches on The Love Below. But with superstar double-disc opuses, mitigation is not really the vision. And still, André’s half of the set is not quite ornate enough to stand as a monument to excess: Its familiar textures are arranged in service of a tepid concept (God grants him the perfect woman) with little sense of danger and perplexingly little in the way of genuine funk or abandon. There’s the serviceable duet with Rosario Dawson (“She Lives in My Lap”) and the preening one with Norah Jones (“Take Off Your Cool”); there’s the endearingly tense hook to “Spread” that culminates in stilted cliché, the overdetermined “Happy Valentine’s Day,” and the sense—that runs through songs like “Behold a Lady,” “Love Hater,” and the languid single “Prototype”—that André’s running at half speed through rehearsals for a Prince biopic; not just imitating, but conscious of the imitation, the gap between instinct and careful study.

The Love Below is more effective when it sounds, however briefly, like something that was perfectly happy to be made in 2003. “Vibrate” churns and churns for nearly seven minutes; it’s indulgent, sure, but sounds like a jagged digital approximation of deep unease. The skittering drums underneath the otherwise too-cute Coltrane rip on “My Favorite Things” at least seem to be marrying André’s disparate musical interests in a novel way. “Roses,” one of the album’s few proper Outkast songs, wrings real momentum from André’s willingness to oversell a premise (in this case, the kind of adolescent lovesickness captured in the song’s wonderful video) rather than approximate a pose. But these respites do little to make such a long—and confusingly, thoughtlessly sequenced—album feel more alive.

Speakerboxxx is no less interested in the past—you get the sense that Big Boi had blaxploitation films playing on mute loops during all the recording sessions—but does a radically better job of integrating those textures into the modern. Sometimes he achieves this effect by literalizing it: See the opener, “GhettoMusick” (which, in a bit of misdirection, opens with André’s superb guest turn), where the beat’s urgent digital freak-out stops cold to lapse into Patti LaBelle. Elsewhere, the synthesis is more causal—as on “Bowtie,” where the “in the Cadillac” overdubs at the end of the chorus seem to punctuate the ’70s silk with Bush-era menace. Though no Big Boi song could reach the heights of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s lead single (and while the line “Outkast is everlasting” is nearly as melancholy to hear as Puff’s “10 years from now we’ll still be on top”), “The Way You Move” sounds as if it should come with a dance routine as tidily choreographed as Patton’s razor-precise vocals.

Big Boi’s dexterity across Speakerboxxx is not surprising, but it is frequently thrilling; he darts in and out of pockets, stepping easily into little melodic runs that break up his trademark scowling staccatos. But the record’s defining quality, more than this athleticism or the riffs on three-piece-suit nightclub acts, is a lingering sadness. It’s there underneath the irresistible bounce of “Tomb of the Boom”; it saturates “Flip Flop Rock,” the oddly somber counterweight to The Blueprint 2’s “Poppin’ Tags,” in which a line in the bridge that was almost surely intended as a rhetorical question (“Don’t you like to groove?”) ceases to read as one. “The Rooster” is a refreshingly bright song about single fatherhood, but elsewhere, the drift toward full adulthood is rendered as a rudderless, terrifying one (“Knowing,” “Reset”). See, even, the way “war” is wielded here versus on The Love Below: while André croons and pretends to wring his hands (“Let’s kiss, not fight / Try to do what’s right tonight / Make love, not war / What the hell are we living for?”), Speakerboxxx’s “War” manages to corral Afghanistan, Iraq, those beheading videos, and the Black Panthers only into throbbing fatigue. The unified theory doesn’t quite cohere, but immediately after what Big Boi slyly calls “one-one-nine,” little did.

Given all this, it would make sense if the album’s staggeringly huge hit were an outlier, misrepresentative of the thematic and formal messiness trapped in the shrink-wrap. But “Hey Ya!” is perfectly in step with the prior Outkast hits, which, despite their obvious pop bona fides, had been about hostile co-parenting situations, general alienation, and bombs over Baghdad. At the Staples Center, after the Lakers or Kings won, the P.A. system would pump Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”—a song people love to point out, in hushed tones, is scathing parody, and look at these people singing it sincerely. This was “Hey Ya!,” too: a sad song about generational malaise that wormed its way into drive-time programming blocks through André’s sheer charisma. It’s easy to imagine this mechanism working again and again, another lament Trojan-horsed onto TRL whenever Outkast needed a release date. But even compared to “ATLiens” or “Ms. Jackson”—or to moody call-and-response songs named after Rosa Parks—“Hey Ya!” sounds uniquely defeated, the end of a too-short rope.

Whether you realize it or not, if you’re a rap fan, you’ve likely seen footage from the 1995 Source Awards. This was the ceremony where, as the tension between the Death Row and Bad Boy camps was boiling over—and becoming generalized as a feud between the East and West coasts—Suge Knight invited artists who didn’t want executive producers “all in the video, all on the record, dancing” to “come to Death Row”; where Snoop Dogg erupted over the boos the New York audience had lobbed at Dr. Dre; where Nas was for years rumored to have rented an outfit as he waited for the It Was Written advance to hit his bank account. This is also where, after the crowd once again rained boos on the stage as Outkast were announced as the winners of New Artist of the Year (Group), a defiant André told the room that “the South got something to say.”

By that point, the pair had not only released Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but engaged in a bit of this meta-commentary as well: On “West Savannah,” a solo song Big Boi had recorded for that debut album but that would eventually surface on Aquemini, he pokes fun at the outsiders who “might call us ‘country,’ but we’s only Southern.” But he and André were too weird, too specific to be regional standard-bearers—they were interested in rappelling down into their own psyches. The last thing released under the Outkast banner was Idlewild, the soundtrack to their pulpy Depression-set movie by the same name, an LP generally not considered a canonical album, an improbable whimper to end one of the most hallowed catalogs of pop music over the last 30 years.

Big Boi has spent the post-Outkast years treated first as a critical darling and later as an afterthought. His nominal solo debut, 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, was greeted as a binding arbiter of cool in that era: It recast Big Boi, who had frequently been misunderstood as the control in the Outkast experiment, as a highbrow pop auteur. But the returns diminished almost immediately, and his subsequent albums, including collaborations with Phantogram (God, remember Obama?) and Sleepy Brown, were largely ignored. This late-period music is precise and sometimes daring, but largely superficial—not in the sense that it’s morally vacuous, but rather that it’s gestural, performed, “a thing ‘Big Boi’ would say here.” The world’s greatest house band.

André, meanwhile, continues to enjoy demigod status, a permanent fixture on top-five lists and in magazine stories about any upcoming year’s most anticipated releases. The hypothetical André 3000 solo album—a rap album, not The Love Below—is the subject of endless speculation. But his output has been limited to occasional guest verses, nearly all of which are treated as major events. These can be subdivided into eras the way albums could: There are the cool-uncle elder statesman turns from the late 2000s (the “Throw Some D’s” and “Walk It Out” remixes), the light-touch verbosity from the early 2010s (T.I.’s “Sorry,” where André apologized to Big Boi for “fucking up the tours”), and the hyper-confession of “Life of the Party,” the 2021 leak on which he attempts to use Kanye West’s late mother as a bridge to communicate with his own. These dispatches are occasional, but taken at face value seem to be complete statements, not indicators of a vast body of work begging for release.

All indications are that, unlike the South as an abstract, constantly evolving entity, Outkast had something to say, said it, and arrived at a state resembling peace. This was likely true before anyone but the men involved realized it. In their way, the final songs of both Speakerboxxx and The Love Below are competing visions of what a closed Outkast chapter meant in each artist’s life—and specifically, what the end of that project had left irresolvable. For André, this was captured in “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre,” which he characteristically insisted on tagging as “(Incomplete).” In the only rap song on The Love Below, André’s flat affect chafes against the molting beat, his patented enjambment (“Drop out of college and never go back / Move to the South, but that ain’t a Kodak / Moment”) mirroring the flood of detail—endless, acutely observed, but defiantly unorganized, the never-ending search for an arc yielding instead a flat circle. For Big Boi, this meant “Last Call,” a raucous party song with a thunderous low end that can’t help but note that the house lights are whirring awake.

Paul Thompson is the senior editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.