“I know it’s kind of weird… 20 years later.” Andre 3000’s last words from OutKast’s 90-minute performance summarized the nostalgia, bizarre ambivalence, adrenal brilliance, and unadulterated joy that surrounded the duo’s much-trumpeted reunion at the 2014 Coachella Music Festival.
You didn’t need to guess at the level of anticipation; you merely had to listen to the squeals on the Indio field. From the smoke machines and fog to the humid red lights and scarred American flag backdrop, to their magnetic charisma and take-it-or-leave-it attitude, the moment felt closer to a big-tent revival than a reunion.
If you wanted the greatest-hits set, you got it: from first song ”B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” to the finale, an aloof rendition of “Hey Ya.” There were guest spots from Janelle Monae, Future, and long-time Dungeon Family hook guru, Sleepy Brown (even if the majority of the young Indio crowd inevitably mistook him for the late Isaac Hayes). But if you expected the OutKast Super Fun-Fun Happy Hour, you might have been gravely disappointed.
The histrionics and flamboyant costumes that characterized the duo’s early-aughts run collected dust in the attic. Instead, Andre and Big Boi wore their original Southern-player mission statement on their sleeves. The former donned Super Mario Bros overalls and a Mexican flag baseball cap; his more compact and ebullient other half sported a camouflage jacket, OutKast hat and dark pants.
It was declaration of no-frills and a repudiation of the caricature that compounded during their absence. This wasn’t the OutKast of myth; these were the complex men who created timeless music. OutKast are the world’s most popular subversives, masking personal rebellion through infectious melody and mind-altering group chemistry.
At heart, “Hey Ya” is a song about the failure to replicate the romantic permanence of the previous generation. “Ms Jackson” is a bittersweet riposte to Andre’s child’s grandmother, angry that he impregnated and later abandoned her daughter. No duo before or since has been able to merge strengths and weaknesses into an original inviolate form quite like OutKast – so when both Big Boi and Andre were together on-stage on Friday, there was incalculable energy.
The show was far from flawless. There were audio and visual glitches that marred several songs. Future’s cameo instantly spiked the energy, but quickly lagged when he started running through unheard songs from his upcoming album. Before they could bring out Killer Mike for a final cameo, the Coachella organizers cut off their sound due to curfew.
With a wry grin and mild bemusement, Andre continually asked the crowd: “Are y’all alive?” He seemed alternately amazed and perplexed by the size and scope of the audience. Watching him lope around on-stage almost felt like watching Roger Waters malign The Wall –you could feel the chasm between the content of the songs and the celebratory reactions of the people. At one point, the animated backdrop showed pictures of grazing cows, which looked suspiciously close to the cover of Atom Heart Mother.
During the first half of “Hey Ya,” Andre performed with his back to the audience like a young Jim Morrison. It was an awkward gesture, but one consistent with the enigmatic Cheshire Cat persona that he’s always cultivated. You sensed that this was the song that imprisoned him to a lifetime of reductive descriptions of him as the “shake it like a Polaroid Picture” guy.
It’s been a decade since OutKast swept the 2004 Grammys with a legendary performance that looked like time-traveling Native American shamans had teleported to teach the world the secrets of fluorescent-colored funk. In the decade that followed a generation has come and gone, revolutionizing the sound of hip-hop and pop culture at large.
But watching OutKast back together, even in semi-muted tones, reminded you why their music remains significant. The strength lies in the Aquemini fusion. When they were both on-stage together, neither Big Boi nor Andre could get away with any indulgences. They were forced to look into each other’s eyes and couldn’t help but frequently smile – and ferociously rap.
Outkast were never about perfection: they were about puncturing the myths and lies that we tell ourselves and stripping things down to the dirt and stank. They were always funky and soulful and still are. They will be many more shows this summer. Some will inevitably be better than this and some will be worse, but none will recreate the power generated by their first time back, when they showed that the curtain still hasn’t closed.
Other Highlights of Day 1
The sister trio from Los Angeles proved why they’re this generation’s answer to the question of what would happen if you merged Vampire Weekend with Wilson Phillips. Wearing short shorts in the blazing sun, the reception to hit single “The Wire” seemed to indicate that Haim’s hold on fans won’t loosen any time soon.
Duke Dumont/Nicolas Jaar
One of the most welcomed additions to this year’s Coachella was the expansion of the Yuma tent. Considered a more disco and house-friendly alternate to the more soul-cracking and heavy dubstep of the Sahara Tent, Nicolas Jaar and Duke Dumont blitzed through the last 30 years of dance and hip-hop. Not only did the consecutive sets offer welcome respite from the bruising bass, they both turned in star-making sets that illuminated why dance music has become increasingly vital in the American cultural consciousness.
The meager crowd might not have befitted the ending of the Minneapolis college rock legends’ 22-year hiatus, but frontman Paul Westerberg proved that he’s as caustic as ever, smirking to the crowd, “There’s been a lot of great music today… we’ll put a stop to that right now.” Running through songs from Let it Be and Tim reminded long-time fans that Outkast wasn’t the only relevant reunion of the day. – Jeff Weiss