Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Spaghetti Junction” Beatitudes: Outkast and Stankonia

Although Dr. Dre may have been the “ace” of West coast gangsta rap in the 1990’s (see: Still D.R.E.), the marketplace for hip hop in general had undergone a generic and geographical paradigm shift by the year 2000. The extensive violence associated with East coast and West coast gangsta rappers left the once-dominant genre and it's marketplace exhausted of novelty, creating room for unheard voices to join in the mainstream fray. Within hip hop and pop culture at large, the first decade of the 21st century would be defined by the humid drawls of the “Dirty South,” starting with the critically acclaimed Atlantean rap duo Outkast.

In March of 1999, Outkast and their label LaFace Records were sued over the lyrics to “Rosa Parks,” a ballad from their 1998 album Aquemini. Although the song is not explicitly about Parks, the sole reference made to her is found in the chorus - “"Ah ha, hush that fuss / Everybody move to the back of the bus" – a metaphor implying “that Outkast is overturning hip hop's old order,” and “that people should make way for a new style and sound”. This metaphor for a new style and sound is indicative of Outkast as a whole, in that since their inception they have been on a beatific mission/poesis quest to push hip-hop's aesthetic envelope in comparison to their strictly gangsta rap counterparts. The evolution of Outkast's discography is one of increasing experimentation and ethical self-critique, as well as a continually renewing site of genre crossings from left field – gangsta, funk, blues, soul, electronic, etc - picked up and remixed as hip hop, bringing a spark of creative vitality to the art form as a whole.

The marijuana-laced staccato of Outkast's 1994 Southernplayalisticaillac-muzik set the high water mark for rappers in Atlanta, akin to Dr. Dre's The Chronic as an origin point for Southern rap as a whole. For the majority of the album, Andre 3000 and Big Boi take on the persona of Southern pimps and playas who drive tricked out Cadillacs, “Gettin' tipsy off the noggin, high as hell off the contact smoke” (Outkast, “Player’s Ball”). Classics like “Player's Ball” and “Funky Ride” function as anthems for weed fiends and Atlanta car culture acolytes cruising the city's downtown boulevards. However, more socially conscious tracks such as “Git Up, Git Out” shy away from the familiar gangsta rap thematics, containing lyricism with a deeper social message directed at Outkast's High Times audience:

Nigga, you need to git up, git out and git somethin’

Don't let the days of your life pass by

You need to git up, git out and git somethin’

Don't spend all your time tryin to get high. (Big Boi, “Git Up”)

Outkast's sophomore album ATliens retains much of the same staccato-based rhythms as their debut, but over a more spaced out soundscape that includes sci-fi, soul, and reggae influences, via the stylings of George Clinton and the Rastas whom Andre 3000 visited prior to recording (Nickson 60). The shift to a calmer production style fits with a lyrical shift in focus, from the imaginary hedonistic underground of the Southern pimp to a more “alien”/out-there expression of the groups self-titled ethos, taking the term “Outkast” to the next symbolic level.

The message that ATliens articulated was not so much about cannabis, pimps and playas as it was about preaching the virtues of being yourself, or learning to be an 'Outkast,' in the face of both the expectations set by the mainstream media and the everyday conditions of living in the hood. In an interview concerning the theme of the album, Andre 3000 states that “being an alien is just being yourself, when people don't understand you. We were just trying to let everybody know there's a place for everybody in this world. You just gotta find yourself and be true to yourself. That's how you get prosperous and happy” (Nickson 56). The clearest indication of this individualistic stance is articulated in “13th floor/Getting old,” a track which begins as a spoken word poem delivered by Outkast associate Big Rube: “We wanna be at a presidential level -- what are we doing? / Foolin’ ourself, clownin’ ourself, playin’ ourself / By not bein’ ourself” (Andre 3000, “13th Floor/Getting Old”).

While one half of Outkast, Big Boi, stuck mostly to the gangsta rap style that made the group's debut an underground classic (developing into the full-blown moniker of “Sir Luscious Left Foot”), Andre 3000 found himself experimenting more and more with anti-gangsta thematics, both in his lyrics and lifestyle. When he says in the title track to ATliens that “[We're] the alienators cause we different keep your hands to the sky / Like Sounds of Blackness when I practice what a preach ain't no lie,” and “The job of speakin’ through us we be so sincere with this here / No drugs or alcohol so I can get the signal clear as day,” Andre had already personally taken this sobering lifestyle ethos to heart, in that “he pointedly disavowed guns, alcohol, and weed, which was a relatively controversial stance for a hip hop MC” (Nickson 57).

With the individualism derived from Andre 3000's sobriety from ‘gangsta’ influences came a willingness to explore wider connections in hip hop's hood-centric thematics, emerging as an impulse to speak out against the systematic oppression imposed on blacks by white structures of oppression; namely, the failures of government and corporate media to deliver positive messages or social structures to the hood. In the song “Babylon,” Andre 3000 references both corporate America's precarious role as the gatekeeper of hip hop's potentially powerful voices, and the American government's role as a gun-toting police state:

But let me hold it down

Cause they shut you down

When you speak from your heart

Now that's hard

While we rantin' and ravin' 'bout gats

Nigga they made them gats

They got some shit that'll blow out our backs

From where they stay at. (Andre 3000, “Babylon”)

The impulse to change aesthetic styles between Outkast's debut and sophomore albums came with an impulse to change the social ethos associated with hip hop rappers as a whole. According to Andre 3000, “we're from the hood, but that's not where our music stayed” (Nickson 68). Outkast's per-millennial surge of aesthetic novelty, at a time when the violent combustion engine of gangsta rap's corporate consolidation had stalled, would come to determine the group's crossover potential between the Southern underground and the mainstream in 2000. By entering into hip hop's national discourse through non-generic hit singles like Elevators (Me & You), and later “Ms. Jackson,” “B.O.B,” (Bombs Over Baghdad) and “Hey Ya,” Outkast was one of the first rap groups to set a precedent for what popular hip hop could look, feel, and sound like in a post-gangsta age, as well as what it could communicate to an eminently black but predominantly white audience.

Andre 3000 stated, “when we started doing the more experimental rap, started talking about aliens, that's when more and more white people started coming to the shows” (Nickson 68). Outkast's mainstream popularity, especially among white audiences altered hip hop's marketplace discourse of “keeping it real,” offering an alternative ideology of cool/corny individualism to counter the played-out excesses associated with gangsta rap and thug authenticity.

Starting with Outkast, the new found marketability of non-gangsta thematics would also mean a shift in how the messages crafted by hip hop artists could shape the popular representation and consumption of predominantly black culture. To take Big Boi's lyrics in “Millennium” as an example, he raps with more than a bit of irony that “I'm proud of you peoples / For sellin' your crack in sacks, I'm glad I'm white not black / Shit, on the real, that's how them whiteys really act,” functioning as a satiric reference to the vicarious cultural tourism associated with marketing inner-city hood authenticity, as well as the role of corporate run record labels who disseminate these representations (Big Boi, “Millennium). Continuing with this theme, Andre 3000 critiques the influence that wealthy 'entertainers' such as Dr. Dre can have on American society at large:

Take this music dead serious while others entertain

I see they makin' they paper so I guess I can't complain...or can I?

I feel they disrespectin' the whole thang

Them hooks like sellin dope to black folks. (Andre 3000, “13th Floor/Growing Old”).

With the recognition of gangsta rap's pernicious influence on conceptions of young black wealth comes a further acknowledgment from Andre 3000 that the “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” credo toted by commercial gangsta rappers functions as a reified cultural construct that keeps social classes oppressed and hidden from the ‘truth’ of their oppression, a lie predicated on the complicity of both blacks and whites consuming the images regurgitated by corporate hip hop. The complex enjambment in Andre's lines point to the complicated reality pertaining to hip hop and it's role in creating young entrepreneurs, who gain wealth by perpetuating the ideology of the ghetto’s internalized version of predatory capitalism:

Bringin' our folks closer together

Cause they severed us from the get green

Light and we ain't gon' stop until we hit the big screen

Psych because no one is free when others are oppressed. (Andre 3000, “13th Floor/Growing Old”)

Outkast released their fourth album, the Grammy winning Stankonia, on October 31, 2000. Stankonia came to prominence in the same year as Nelly's 9x platinum debut, Country Grammar, which was #1 on the Top 40 Billboard chart for five weeks. In just three short years, Southern rappers dominated the top 10 slots on the Top 40, which solidified the region's reign as hip hop's and pop's new dominant. According to Craig S. Watkins in Hip Hop Matters, “the focus on the South not only signaled the region’s rise, it also symbolized the movement’s spreading influence, multiple accents, and continuing fragmentation” (Watkins 65). As a pioneer for both Southern hip hop and aesthetic novelty in general, Outkast's Stankonia would contain a mixed bag of gangsta rap, conscious rap, and alien aesthetics derived from their three previous albums, repackaged and refreshed for a now national audience. The chorus laid down in 1998 on Aquemini's Rosa Parks thus proved prophetic for the Dirty South's ascendency into popular culture in the new millennium. Stankonia itself would also prove to be prophetic for the coming decade, it's cryptic but moving verses foreshadowing the tide of dystopic events to come in the following decade.

The first half of the word “Stankonia” comes from “stank,” which itself derives from “funk,” a word whose significance pivots on a double meaning: between what George Clinton refers as the “carnal, hedonistic things in life,” and what Cornel West refers to as “finitude; being born of a woman in stink and stench,” the realization that we are “beings towards death” (Cornel West, Examined Life). The theme of Stankonia encapsulates this doublespeak between funk’s death in life (historical catastrophe) and life in death (creativity), akin to the blues in that “the blues begins with catastrophe, the angel of history” that turns into “personal catastrophe lyrically expressed” (Cornel West, Examined Life). As a concept album, Stankonia functions as a kind of blues-tinged beatific counter-vision to the catastrophic sins of American systematic white supremacy and black disenfranchisement, as well as the haphazard ontological status of hip hop itself, whose social legitimacy/ethical responsibility in representing its profoundly racialized audience has become culturally precarious. Stankonia channels this beatific counter-vision to American empire by elevating the ideology of “stank” - associated with the redemptive forces of creativity, procreation, and self-preservation - into the level of an imaginary utopia, or an “ideal community within a perfect world” (Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia”).

It is thus appropriate that the second half of the album’s title comes from “utopia,” which in Stankonia refers to “the place where all funky things come,” located “7 light years below sea level” at “the center of the Earth” (Andre 3000, “Intro”). To take this further, the conceptual framework of Stankonia fits with what Jameson would characterize as “the utopian moment: - the separation of the political from the world of the lived and the existential…that allows us to take hitherto unimaginable mental liberties with structures whose actual modification or abolition scarcely seem on the cards” (Jameson 2). Outkast’s bid for an imaginary utopian Stankonia functions as both a negation of the current state of affairs, both in hip hop and American society in general, and a positive envisagement of a “better world” from which to stage a critique of current events in the first place - one in which the appetition towards life-giving creativity or something with a “definite novelty” takes precedence over political questions of political authenticity (Shaviro 32) . Andre highlights this need for a dive back into the creative depths when he raps in “Gasoline Dreams” that “The world is movin' fast and I'm losin' my balance / No time to dig, low low / To a place where ain't nowhere to go but up” (Andre 3000, Gasoline Dreams).

The “specific class-historical standpoint or perspective” (Jameson 3) that Outkast derives their ideological framework from is rooted in the history of black disenfranchisement and white patriarchy in the South, but is situated on the contemporary stage of hip hop culture and questions regarding its economic and cultural legitimacy. Outkast is able to synthesize and overcome these conflicting dialectics at once, gaining the approval of both mainstream white audiences and maintaining ties with the black Southern underground from which their debut album was able to reach critical acclaim. Stankonia in particular achieves this paradoxical feat through the bid for a utopic aesthetic that problematizes the binaries of racial politics, reflected in the mix-and-match elements of “patterned contrasts” found in the album's production style and lyrics. For example, the soundscape of Stankonia contains novel rearrangements of elemental rhythms taken of funk, blues, jazz, drum-and-bass and electronic music. Also present is the dense symbolism and varying stylistic flows of the lyrics, whose references range from standard gangsta rap fare to more cryptic references to the four humors of the body.

Quoting Alfred North Whitehead on the subject of creativity, Steven Shapiro argues that:

“creative advance is an intensive, qualitative, and aesthetic drive for ‘depth of satisfaction’ (93, 110). Emotions are intensified, and experiences made richer, when incompatibilities, instead of being excluded (negatively prehended), are transformed into contrasts that can be positively integrated within a greater ‘complexity of order’ (100)” (Shaviro 32).

The concresence of patterned contrasts and conflicting styles in Outkast’s complex soundscape and lyricism points to an ideological quest for transformation that “strives for something other than the mere continuation of what already is,” (104) both in terms of ideology and aesthetics. The mainstream popularity of Stankonia posits a sonic intervention on behalf of discourses in hip hop, the black community, and American identity in general, and functions as a bid for a revived sense of ‘everyday’ liveliness and ontological depth in the conceptual apparatus of all three discursive fields.

The politically charged songs “Gasoline Dreams,” “Xplosion,” and “Bombs Over Baghdad (B.O.B.)” channel much of the novel aesthetic/ideological momentum driving Outkast’s utopian project. These songs resonate most strongly with one of the four genres tat Fredric Jameson associates with utopian discourse; “great prophecy, which includes within itself that mode called satire, the denunciation of the fallen and sinful world” (Jameson 4). The first instance of this kind of “great prophecy” is delivered over electric guitar licks in the intro to “Gasoline Dreams”:

Don't everybody like the smell of gasoline?

Well burn motherfucka’ burn American Dreams

Don't everybody like the taste of Apple Pie?

We'll snap for your slice of life I'm tellin' ya why

I hear that mother nature's now on birth control

The coldest pimp be looking for somebody to hold

The highway up to Heaven got a crook on the toll

Youth full of fire ain't got nowhere to go, nowhere to go. (Andre 3000, “Gasoline Dreams”)

Within just the hook to this track, Andre 3000 détournes the signifiers of the “American Dream” and “Apple Pie” from their ideological association with American nationalism and re-appropriates these terms in light of the United States’ country's bloodthirsty lust for oil, it's precarious role in the destruction of the environment, and it's oppression of browning youth culture. These three issues would continue to plague the United States in the following decade, with the War in Iraq, George W. Bush's dismal environmental record, and the intensification of youth incarceration rates/the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex.

“Xplosion” begins with ominous organ pipes that loom over the sounds of marching feet and fists pounding against a doorway. The occasional sputter of bubbling water slips into the sonic mix, alluding to the boiling prophecy at work in the song. As one YouTube fan would later write, “this track burns even water.” In the vacuum of this sonic collage, one can almost visualize the U.S. Army in its camouflage drab and the Marines with their M16s, ready to mount a first strike in defense against the nations of the world labeled as rogue states, or sponsors of terrorism; after all, Jameson states that “Utopias in fact come to us as barely audible messages from a future that may never come into being” (Jameson 54). In the first verse of “Xplosion” which deserves to be quoted in full, Andre 3000 is a hip hop Nostradamus, his words encrypted in double meanings and entendres akin to a revelation which has yet to find its full actualization:

Hello lord, it's me again 
I just wanna make to love the whole globe
And all her girlfriends now don't that make ya mind move
Like smoke patterns, me on my way to Saturn wit a bomb
Numb be it view, or Saudi Shawty
I figure before the first gun blast, they know who gone win
Now won't that make us all fools
Like class clowns praying Private Ryan comes round
Sound travels at one thousand, one thirty, feet per second
Niggaz in the street they want it hurry
When niggaz start biting that's when 3000 starts to worry
A little knowledge from the college of wizard Ray Murray
Answer quick do you know what desire is? "Huh?"
Apparently not that's why you get what you got
Now answer this do you know what fire is? "Yeah"
The body of hot, the motivator of pots
Snot, spit, shit are characteristics of release
Ask your niece or nephew, you think we left you
What the future holds in its sweaty palms
Thank I'm finna vom? Ya move like ya mean it she'll cum
Prom night might excite a down right fight like
White blood cell to the common cold rebel
Night gets jealous of day play is no longer
The feelin' gets stronger than Ammonia sticks inhale. (Andre 3000, “Xplosion”)

Andre 3000 here takes on the personification of the Pax Americana itself, ready to “make love” to the whole globe, and by cosmic extension the entire solar system, via the violence of economic coercion and military domination. The references to “Private Ryan coming round” and “everyone looking a fool” point towards the imperial ambitions of the American military-industrial complex, whose “pre-emptive” action against proclaimed enemies of the state are staged from naval bases located on foreign soils worldwide. The future that Andre 3000 envisions for coming generations through his metaphors of “night” getting jealous of “day” and of “white” blood cell poised to defend the allegorical “body” politic is that of domestic riots and revolt along both racial and class lines. This future oriented vision is placed in contrast to today's generation, which is content with the Spectacle what it has been given and as such doesn't know what the “desire” for systemic change really means. Like ammonia sticks which have an overwhelming stench when in an enclosed space, the ferment of this subterranean revolution within the American boiling pot is alluded to as eventually reaching a cultural critical mass, which in Stankonia finds its most apparent manifestation in the song “B.O.B.”

The chorus to “B.O.B,” short for “Bombs Over Baghdad,” references the 1992 and 1998 bombings of the Iraqi military, in which the United States took what some perceived to be half-hearted military action in destroying the production facilities of Saddam's suspected weapons of mass destruction (Shmoop Music Guide). Outkast uses this historical reference as a metaphor for it's youthful audience to give a 100% commitment with whatever endeavors they undertake. This positive envisagement is reinforced by the socially positive messages found in the lyrics to the song, such as “Make a business for yourself, boy, set some goals / Make a fair diamond out of dusty coals,” and “Hello, ghetto, let your brain breathe / Believe there's always mo', OWWW!” (Big Boi/Andre 3000, “B.O.B”).

Yet quite eerily, this in-between song in this in-between genre – marked by its contrasting thematics (gangsta vs conscious rap), lyrical styles (Big Boi vs Andre), musical influences (drum-n-bass, electric guitar, a church choir), and temporal location between historical events (Operation Desert Storm and the Occupation of Iraq) - signals the binary reterritorialization that becomes part and parcel to the discourse of terrorism, domestic surveillance constructs, and aggressive military actions taken by the U.S. after the events of September 11, 2001. Along with the post-9/11 recourse to neo-liberal ideology would come not a hardening, but a cracking open of America’s social totality, revealing gaping wounds both domestic and foreign to the Pax Americana's reign as global superpower.

It is thus that B.O.B., which I consider the centerpiece for the utopian bid of Stankonia, occupies a special residual space of emergence, functioning as a virtual body of the possible events to come after 2001. Andre 3000 raps: “One-Nine-Nine-Nine, Ano Domini, anything goes, be whatchu wanna be / Long as you know consequences are given for livin',” which in its original context refers to individuals being punished by the law, but within it's reterritorialized context in the post 9/11 world seems to reference a cosmic sense of karma pertaining to the past actions of U.S as a whole (Andre 3000, “B.O.B”).

I do not mean to say that Outkast predicted the events to come circa 2001, but rather that their utopian aesthetic channels much of the pressure and weight of contradictions carried over from before the new millennium into the possibility of something new to come. It is as if the ideological failures of American society to account for a harmonious whole will always lead to cracks in the real of History, from which narrative aesthetics (such as Outkast's Stankonia) sticks its finger within, exploring and temporarily alleviating historical pressure points, like the proverbial Dutch Boy at the Dyke. The fact that disaster has seemed to plague the United States since the release of B.O.B might only mean that Outkast was right in saying that there are consequences for every action taken, or not taken; that we as a nation are paying for mistakes we have made in the past, and that it is our responsibility to build from death and the ruins, to take a step back from the rabble and rubble and to wholeheartedly dive into the depths of redemptive creativity, from which all stank/life comes from. After all, “B.O.B” ends with the choir, who, repeat 23 times “Po-wer music, electric revival” (Morris Brown Gospel Choir, “B.O.B.”).

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