Last week, Pitchfork Media, the Chicago-based online music magazine that has replaced Rolling Stone as an arbiter of the cutting-edge, named “Bombs Over Baghdad,” a 2000 single by the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast, the best song of the last ten years.
It might seem like an odd choice. Though OutKast was already a critical and commercial success by the time “Bombs Over Baghdad” was released, the sprawling, schizophrenic song was a something of a commercial failure. OutKast has had bigger, and catchier hits, including the lovelorn “Ms. Jackson,” which debuted the same year, and the insanely infectious “Hey Ya!” which ruled airways for what seemed like most of 2004. But as Pitchfork explains in their writeup, musically, “Bombs Over Baghdad” was groundbreaking—an “obliteration of the boundaries separating hip-hop, metal, and electro”—and in its imagery and lyrics (featuring a “Bombs over Baghdad” refrain three years before the second U.S. invasion), the song offered a prescient foreshadowing of the years to come.
”Bombs Over Baghdad” is only one example of OutKast’s sonic ingenuity. But the duo have always been brilliant visual as well as musical artists, generating buzz for their fashion choices as well as for their lyrics. And in their best music videos, OutKast married their music and lyrics to images of themselves as visionaries and rock stars, consciously building their own myth. Over a period of ten years, OutKast has deployed video to playfully cast themselves in the roles of Moses and the Beatles, to reclaim and comment on minstrelsy, and to choreograph their own interpretations of the fight scenes of “West Side Story.” In 2006, they even made the leap from small screens to the biggest with a feature-length movie, Idlewild, in which they took on the roles of Prohibition-era jazz performers. OutKast has always been lyrically and musically inventive, but it’s through the medium of video that they’ve placed themselves at the center of a sprawling network of artistic traditions, moving themselves beyond easy categorization in any single one.
André Benjamin and Antwan Patton (a.k.a., Andre 3000 and Big Boi) weren’t always superstars, and they didn’t always make good videos. The video for “Player’s Ball,” the first OutKast single from all the way back in 1993 essentially consists of an absurdly young-looking Benjamin and Patton hanging out and cruising around in Atlanta Braves gear, as does the video for “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” released in the same year.
It wasn’t until their 1996 single “ATLiens” (ATL is an abbreviation for Atlanta) that the mythmaking really took off. The video starts with a grave white male voice declaring in PBS-documentary-style tones that “The hieroglyphics tell us the story of two visionaries: OutKast, not of this world. They led a band of rag-tag followers, carrying everything they had, pursued by forces of evil. The symbols show us they reached their destination [presumably the pyramid the camera pans to], but what happened inside was a mystery.” The remainder of the video mostly consists of Benjamin and Patton performing interspersed with vaguely Egyptian imagery; they’re a pair of Moseses leading the people back into Egypt. But the video’s epic premise offers the first hint that OutKast wants to move beyond the ordinary—to lead us somewhere new, even if we don’t yet know entirely where we’re going.
Two years later, the video for “Rosa Parks” opens with a phone conversation between two men who are hashing out what kind of video should be commissioned to accompany the song.“ Man, it’s the first video, man. We need to crank it back up,” the first man declares, recommending that the artists use an array of flashy cars to impress their viewers. “I’m with that, I’m with all of that,” the second man replies. “But I’m telling you, what we need to do, we need some space futuristic type things. I’m saying let’s do that. They scared of that. It’s that time.” Once the music begins, the video (presumably the product of that brainstorming session) is something of a mess, with a lot of distorted footage, and Benjamin wearing what appears to be metal football pads as he dances in front of a marching band:
Its weirdness may not work, exactly, but it was another step forward for OutKast as they toyed with the flashy cars and allusions to outer space that are both common tropes in hip-hop—acknowledging the popular appeal of such symbols and trying to move beyond them.
It was in the video for “Bombs Over Baghdad” that OutKast put their first great image on film. The video begins with Benjamin lying on his back in bed, counting to three. Suddenly, he explodes upwards and races downstairs and outside, bursting onto a purple field, racing forward, rhyming all the while as a vast crowd of children chases behind him, flipping downhill, hopping over fences, flowing down stairs. Their race continues for the first full minute of the video, until Benjamin leaps into a car driven by a flashy woman with a gleaming grill, and peels off. The sequence would be horrendously cheesy, a trite Pied Piper metaphor, if its execution weren’t so spontaneous. Once again, it’s not clear where OutKast is going—the video ends with a shot of a highway sign marking the distance to a fictional town called Stankonia—but the video makes it seem urgent that we come along.
Just a year later, OutKast released their best, most unsettling video. It was for “The Whole World,” a track that, ironically, didn’t even make it onto one of their major studio albums and ended up becoming part of a compilation CD instead.
The video portrays Benjamin as the ringmaster of a circus and Patton as its manager. The performers are mostly people of color, and the audience is almost entirely composed of swaying white men, who act as a hypnotized metronome. Some of the verses and the chorus are set against a backdrop of a black and white American flag. The video is an uneasy, and striking commentary on the interplay between black performers and white audiences, even though the lyrics don’t contain a single reference to that dynamic. When Benjamin, in death’s-head makeup, declares straight to the camera “If you look straight in my eyes you still might see a disguise,” it’s all at once a rejection of the audience and a tease—a declaration that these artists are setting the terms of the engagement.
No such tension colors the funny, happy video for what is probably OutKast’s most popular song, “Hey Ya!” released in 2003. Explicitly meant to echo, and expand upon, the Beatles’ introduction to America on the Ed Sullivan show, Benjamin plays all eight members of a band performing a lasciviously-updated wooing of a multi-racial crowd of screaming women. A black family dances in excitement in their living room, a young boy updating the image with breakdancing moves. The video is explicit about the broad reach of OutKast’s appeal: by the end, even a stodgy old white-lady chaperone who enters the video covering her ears surrenders to the music and starts shaking it alongside her charges.
That same appropriation of early 1960s style colors the video for the hilariously nasty kiss-off song, 2004’s “Roses.” In that video, Benjamin and Patton play the leaders of rival gangs, The Love Below, and Speakerboxx (the names of their respective halves of a double album) who engage in a tame rumble during a school assembly (presided over by another crusty white lady who is pleasantly transformed when the music starts to play). The dueling cliques are a nice metaphor for the conversation between pop and rap that became a feature of OutKast’s later work, as Benjamin spent more of his time singing, while Patton refined his always-considerable skills as an MC. The whole video is a loose, goofy virtuosic statement: if OutKast can visually revive even the trite rhythms of high school rivalries, what can’t they do?
For their next project, they reached even further back, to Prohibition and the rise of jazz and blues in Idlewild, a 2006 big-screen feature, scored with OutKast songs and starring Benjamin and Patton as lifelong friends. The movie, which traced the journey of a small-town dancehall pianist, played by Benjamin, as he gathers the courage to pursue a full-time music career in Chicago, is full of energized dance sequences and visual jokes. But the movie’s most exuberant moment comes in the credit sequences, as Benjamin and a troupe of women pull off a perfect facsimile of a big-budget 1930s movie musical. The rapper who started his career on film lounging in a car in a Braves jersey looks equally at home in a tux, tails, and tap shoes, dancing up and down a staircase and lounging on top of a piano. It’s a rare talent to appear as comfortable in the style of your influences as you are in your own.
There are few aspects of the musical history that produced them that OutKast hasn’t found a way to inhabit or incorporate somewhere into their rich visual archive. And by proving, in the course of their endlessly inventive videomaking, that they’re capable of becoming pretty much anyone else, OutKast manages to rise above comparisons to everybody else. Their fierce urgency—what Pitchfork called “the future-shocked ferocity” of their work—has earned them the right to stand alone.
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