I think I've made the case before that Outkast is the greatest hip-hop group ever, and certainly the greatest of their time. I don't think there's anything like the run that extends out from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to ATLiens, through Aquemini, Stankonia and ends with Speakerboxx/The Love Below. I don't just mean in quality of art (which is high) but in the attempt to say something really different each time. I used to say that if my son asked me what it was like to be a black male in the late '80s/early '90s I would have handed him Illmatic. But if you asked what it was like to black during at the turn of the millennium, I would give him the collected Outkast.
I was recently talking with some friends about the ever-, and often, present "Black Nerd" pieces that pop up in the media now and again. I always find these pieces rather disappointing in their rendering of black communities, and generally find nerdism to be a distortive lens to understand black people who, say, happen to be into Star Trek. Historically, there's so little social space in the black community. On the one hand, if you find yourself alienated from the rituals and mores, I imagine the alienation must be really intense. I would argue that the products of that alienation are well represented in the the conversation.
But the other part of this lack of social space is a profound social cohesion. Hip-Hop was the underground music of my youth. I played it incessantly, and memorized every lyric. People later told me that this meant I was a "music nerd." But there was nothing alienating about knowing Criminal Minded back to front. Similarly, I didn't really know black people who played D&D. But, so what? I knew why Michael Jordan was a prophet. One of my best friends can check off every "nerd box" in the book. He also is one the best dancers I know. What do we make of Wu-Tang and their obsession with comic books and kung-fu? What do we say about Method Man's legendary comic book collection, or his critique of video game engines? "Y'all messing with a 'G' here," he says. "And The 'G' stands for geek."
I always thought Outkast really represented the dynamic well. We always knew that Andre 3000 was doing some sort of wild Afro-futurism ("Space, futuristic type-things") and Big Boi was doing the streets. But still you knew they were from the same place.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.