Before she knew the alphabet, Stevie knew all the words of OutKast’s legendary album, “Stankonia.” Strapped into her carseat, plastic barrettes in her hair, Stevie was bouncing up and down wailing, “Ain’t nobody dope as me, I’m just so fresh, so clean!” Loaded with commercial singles, experimental production and eclectic style, “Stankonia” has become a hip hop classic that remains transcendent and innovative even in today’s musicscape.
Hip hop duo OutKast, consisting of Antwan Patton under the alias of “Big Boi” and Andre “3000” Benjamin, released their fourth album “Stankonia” in 2000, coming off the success of their previous work “Aquemini” that helped bring Southern-style hip hop to mainstream attention and wider audiences.
Arguably their most prolific work (though “Speakerboxxx/LoveBelow” is a close second), “Stankonia” is loaded with memorable singles; tracks like “So Fresh, So Clean,” “Ms. Jackson,” and “B.O.B.” And yet the strength of the album lies not in its singles, but rather its cohesive whole.
While not exactly a “concept album” the album has a strong structure, supported by an introduction to the meaning of the word, “Stankonia” in the opening track, skits dispersed throughout the track list, and consistent themes that tie everything together.
After a slow, psychedelic start, the tone immediately changes into the first real song, the hard-thitting, lyrical spitting, “Gasoline Dreams. It opens with an assaulting, “ALRIGHT ALRIGHT ALRIGHT” for what initially seems like forever, until Andre 3000 bursts into the refrain, unrepentingly political and critical, threatening to “burn american dreams.” That’s followed by another tone shift with, “So Fresh, So Clean.” This episodic number recounts the people and places the rappers go to, to find their fly style. The bravado and gallantry act as a sort of palette cleanser to make way for “Ms. Jackson.”
One of their most recognizable songs, “Ms. Jackson” is a letter to an imaginary Ms. Jackson (supposedly inspired by the mother of Erykah Badu according to a Vibe Magazine interview with Andre), both condemning her for her misplaced anger at his parenting, while slowly turning into a story about falling out of love, and struggling to be a parent. It’s thematically ambitious, but the eccentric vocal melodies and unique word choices take this song to another level.
The album flows back and forth between anger, show boating, chilling, and hard times, with features from prominent artists of the time such as Erykah Badu and Cee-Lo Green, as well as the fresh on the scene, future rap legend, Killer Mike.
That brings us to “Toilet Tisha,” a gut-wrenching song about a 14-year-old girl who becomes pregnant and can’t decide how to proceed with her life. She is torn between, giving it away, aborting, or taking her own life, “Should I, shouldn’t I, I cant, I have to, mama will never see me the same/Daddy and Big Mama I know all of them gonna be ashamed of me.” The song ends with an unidentified voice discovering Tisha with horror, and screaming hysterically.
It’s not easy to listen to, but it addresses an issue that is real for some but not often addressed in such mainstream music, especially the hip hop of the time. In an interview with CMJ New Music Magazine, Andre recounts, “I started thinking that my lyrics really have to mean something. I can’t just be bullsh—–g. Then after a couple of albums, I’m getting bored as a rapper, so I cranked that s–t up, turned it up to nine, and I was like, we gotta hit’em with the snap factor. It’s time to put it on the line.”
The album ends on a slow outro that mirrors the intro track, singing like a farewell to the nirvana of Stankonia. While I’m not sure I can condone letting a toddler listen to this albu with all of it’s adult themes and language, I envy the opportunity to be exposed to such powerful and creative music at such a young age. And in case you’re wondering, yes Stevie still knows all the words.