In April, when Outkast set off their 2014 reunion tour with a problematic, unfocused set at Coachella’s first weekend, critics suggested many different scapegoats: a flawed setlist, a disengaged Andre 3000, overlong solo sets from he and Big Boi, a festival crowd that was too young and too pop-friendly to truly appreciate the return of two Southern rap pioneers. Whatever the problems may have been, the pair seemed to have all the answers last night, at their triumphant closing set on the first-day at Governors Ball.
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The Atlanta rappers’ newfound, high-energy focus was noticeable from the get-go: Both were smiling, dancing and bouncing, and it was hard to not follow their lead. Andre and Big Boi emerged to the bouncy pandemonium of “Bombs Over Baghdad,” and didn’t let up on the gas until several songs in, playing classics that both new and old Outkast devotees could appreciate, including “Rosa Parks,” “Atliens,” and “Skew It on the Bar-B” — the lattermost sans guest verse from Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, an unfortunate no-show in his own hometown. High-profile New York rap shows often become guest-filled family affairs, but Outkast kept the focus on their music, and their reunion after all years.
The duo and their airtight backing band — horns, drums, bass, DJ — finally slowed things down when they played “Aquemini” and “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” perhaps the two best downtempo rap songs of all time, back to back. The BPMs dropped, but the audience stayed with the rappers as they walked in circles in a massive cube that graced the center of the stage, an unfortunate hold-over from the Coachella set. Big Boi reminisced how they would pace around his aunt’s kitchen in much the same way while writing rhymes back in the day, before Epic president (then head of Arista imprint LaFace) L.A. Reid “cut us that check and we bought us a fucking Cadillac.” On “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” singer Sleepy Brown emerged in a black and purple silk get-up, leading the crowd in a collective zone-out to that song’s unforgettable horn line.
After bringing the tempo back up with baby-mama anthem “Ms. Jackson,” Outkast broke into their respective solo sets, mostly featuring music from their individualistic double album “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” But thankfully, each set was much shorter and tighter than at Coachella. The whole point of this tour is to see Andre and Big Boi together, after all. The beat drop on Big Boi’s “Kryptonite” proved even more explosive live, and “GhettoMusick,” a forgotten highlight from “Speakerboxxx,” was a frenetic, heart-attack burst of rhythm. Andre followed with his songs from “The Love Below,” which pioneered emo weirdo-rap singing years before Kanye West, Future and Drake followed suit. However, unlike those three, Andre didn’t make use of Auto-tune, either on record or at Governors Ball, and you could tell. His pitchiness, and a low mic level, made album highlight “She Lives on My Lap” the only real lowlight of the entire set; there may be a reason he never performed these songs live until this reunion tour. Still, the sunny love ballad “Prototype” brought the audience back, and even inspired one young lady to slow-dance seductively with a reluctant security guard. Andre concluded his mini-set with his mod-rap hit “Hey Ya,” saying he’d play it “only if y’all lose your shit.” The audience obliged, as did Janelle Monae, who ran out from backstage to dance with several females fans that Andre invited up (and later happily group-hugged).
When Big Boi reemerged, he and Andre performed “Hootie Hoo,” “Crumblin’ Erb” and “Player’s Anthem,” smoky standouts from Outkast’s landmark 1994 debut, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” It was one of the most welcome changes from that first weekend of Coachella: There, they only played “Hootie Hoo,” giving short shrift to the album they were ostensibly on tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of. The block of old tracks also demonstrated one of the big, and best, differences between Governors Ball and other festivals: Governors Ball takes place in the middle of New York City. Last night, this meant that this wasn’t just your typical young, flower-headbanded festival crowd camping in tents and trailers. Older Outkast fans were peppered throughout, and they rapped along to the deepest album cuts, even if they (this writer included) were undoubtedly disappointed that the only LP the group barely touched on was the 1996 classic “ATLiens,” with only one song, “Elevators (Me & You).”
But the key change from the failed Coachella set was that Andre 3000 and Big Boi actually engaged each other and the crowd, and seemed to actually have fun while doing so. This is a review, not a psychoanalysis, but they seemed to finally enjoy each other’s company a bit. During “Roses,” Andre jokingly blabbered out nonsensical lyrics during a beat break; Big Boi danced around giddily. After Andre asked if anyone was “going to make a baby tonight,” Big Boi tacked on: “Is anyone going to make a throat baby? They say that’s the best kind.”
They finally seemed to soak up the size of the moment: The two of them, back onstage 20 years later, in front a hyped-up crowd of thousands in America’s biggest city, still a hip-hop mecca. At one point, Andre reminisced on the 1995 Source Awards, where the pair shocked a New York crowd obsessed with East Coast/West Coast beef by winning Best New Artist and famously proclaiming, “The South got something to say.” Inspired by that memory, he and Big Boi shouted out the Dixie rap pioneers that influenced them, name-dropping UGK, 8Ball & MJG and even Houston underground group Odd Squad before launching into a surprise set addition, “International Player’s Anthem.” (In a nice coincidence, Andre also praised New York rap legends De La Soul, who at around the same time were making a surprise cameo during Damon Albarn’s set on the other side of the festival).
Either way, whether it was for the South or the $60 million the duo is reportedly making on their 2014 festival tour, Outkast successfully changed the narrative of their comeback last night. They had already reportedly shown improvements during their second Coachella performance, the Napa Valley BottleRock festival and Adult Swim’s up-front show at New York’s Terminal 5, but this was a much bigger stage: Governors Ball has grown rapidly over the past few years, and at this point has joined A-List festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Coachella in terms of importance and impact. The show seemed to be the polar opposite of that first Coachella set: There, Outkast ran out of time during their closing number, “Whole World,” causing guest Killer Mike to get cut off. Here, Mike, who had performed earlier with Run the Jewels, finally got to deliver his furious verse. It’s strange song to end on: their last hit single, one of the few rap songs in awkward 6/8 time, featuring a paranoid chorus about schadenfreude.
But it was fitting in some ways too. They were performing in front of thousands at Governors Ball, in the middle of a city of 8 million, the media capital of the world. It seemed like the whole world was watching, dancing and rapping along, and at exactly at the right time: With this set, Outkast successfully shook off the rust, finally reminding old fans, and perhaps even convincing new ones, why they’re one of the greatest, most influential, most dynamic rap groups of all time.