Knotty, funny, and frank, Outkast’s fourth album Stankonia extends and transcends the Southern funk-rock-hip-hop synthesis this Atlanta duo nurtured so fruitfully on 1998’s Aquemini. Andre ”Dre” Benjamin and Antwan ”Big Boi” Patton may be intent on proving they are, as they say at one point on this 17-cut epic, ”the coolest motherfunkers on the planet,” but these guys are nothing if not down-to-earth. Their influences include, crucially, Richard Pryor (base-head blackout sketches; a sentimental affection for prostitutes) and George Clinton (they quote the P-Funk All-Star’s ”fakin’ the funk” mantra as well as a melody line from ”You Shouldn’t-Nuf Bit Fish”). Like both of those artists, Benjamin and Patton love puns and wordplay. Their record’s references to ”the underground smellroad” and nursery-rhyme chants of ”I stank I can, I stank I can” emphasize the blues definition of ”funky” as ”smelly” — that is to say, low-down, blunt, pungent: a measure of authenticity.
Benjamin and Patton shift with dizzyingly assured fluidity between the real and the surreal. A cut such as ”Ms. Jackson” is a beautifully detailed sung-spoken apology to the grandmother of the narrator’s baby, in which he laments his breakup with the child’s mother and promises to uphold his responsibility as a parent. At the other extreme is the record’s first single, ”B.O.B.” — ”bombs over Baghdad” — a frenetically shouted tour de force featuring drum beats that spray across the melody like rounds of gunfire. It’s followed by the even more militant ”Explosion,” which exhorts brothers to avoid being ”brainwash[ed] to be commercial clowns” — a powerful distillation of the message Spike Lee is delivering in Bamboozled.
In the whirling universe of Stankonia, Teddy Pendergrass, Three’s Company’s Jack Tripper, and Anne Frank all get name-checked to surprising effect, and to all the commentators who have lauded Eminem for his use of internal rhyme, Outkast offers the white homophobe a job as well as a superior example of this poetic device — ”Speeches only reaches those who know about it/This is how we go about it.” All this, while demonstrating that the way they ”go about it” is to be endlessly good-humored and imaginative even when dealing with the most grim and mind-deadening facets of ghetto life. Stankonia reeks of artful ambition rendered with impeccable skill — or as one song title so concisely has it, ”So Fresh, So Clean.” Take a deep breath and jump into this music. A