Near the end of a Billboard news piece from Oct. 28, 2000 about OutKast’s then-current single “Ms. Jackson” debuting on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart thanks to strong airplay ahead of Stankonia‘s Oct. 31 release, there’s a revealing line: “[OutKast] is most famous, however, for its controversial track ‘Rosa Parks,’ which climbed to No. 19 on the [aforementioned chart] before legalities raised by the woman for whom the song was named forced the single to stop being played at radio.”
As we celebrate the stone-cold classic’s 20th anniversary this weekend, it’s a curious sentence to come across with historical perspective: these days, the legal fight between the Civil Rights pioneer and the duo of Big Boi and André 3000 is more a piece of OutKast trivia than a defining biographical incident for the duo – certainly not what they’re “most famous” for by a long shot.
Which isn’t to say the 2000 article was wrong, per se; if anything, it speaks to the sea change in popular success OutKast would enjoy over the next decade, fueled in large part by the critically lauded commercial breakthrough that was their fourth album, Stankonia, a 73-minute odyssey that catapulted their careers to the next level. Hitting No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the album remained on the chart for 46 weeks and earned OutKast two Grammys: best rap album and best rap performance by a duo or group for “Ms. Jackson.” Today, it’s regularly cited as one of the greatest albums of all time.
It was hardly an overnight success story, though. The duo had been steadily increasing its profile since the release of its 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, with follow-up LPs ATLiens (1996) and Aquemini (1998) enjoying critical acclaim and hitting No. 2 on the Billboard 200. But beyond the headlines the Rosa Parks lawsuit garnered, and the No. 12 peak of “Elevators (Me & You)” on the Hot 100, the duo’s pop culture crossover was limited. Yes, they were Southern rap stars after Aquemini, but with Stankonia, OutKast was suddenly thrust into the same pop cultural conversation that included Janet Jackson, *NSYNC and Britney Spears.
For an album that would see OutKast vastly expand its audience, Stankonia sure doesn’t sound like a pop crossover album. Its heady mix of ’70s soul, psychedelic funk, Public Enemy-styled aural chaos, drum’n’bass, Funkadelic, Prince and even salsa is engrossing but dizzying, beguiling but befuddling. If anything, the album’s lead single “B.O.B.” — a frenetic, ominous electro-tinged track — seemed like a bellwether that Stankonia might prove too challenging for listeners: “B.O.B” missed the Hot 100 entirely and failed to detonate on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, only reaching No. 69. Despite fizzling on the charts, “B.O.B.” was an instant success with critics and remains a fan favorite.
But “Ms. Jackson” changed everything. With its Brothers Johnson sample (their 1977 cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23”) , laid-back groove, touching sincerity and impish playfulness (“forever-ever?”), “Ms. Jackson” became an early ’00s radio staple, topping the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in December and crowning the Hot 100 for one week in February 2001.
In the Nov. 18, 2000-dated issue (after Stankonia’s release but before “Ms. Jackson” topped the Hot 100), Billboard reviewed the single, focusing on the lyrical content and social implications. “Several musicians have recently addressed the concept (and complications) of having children out of wedlock… ‘Ms. Jackson’ tackles the issue with sincerity over a synthed-out drum track,” reads the review. “The message-oriented single has caught fire across the country at radio.” (The child in question, incidentally, is the son of Erykah Badu and André 3000, who would have been a toddler when “Jackson” hit the airwaves.) Very much a product of the era, parts of the review haven’t aged terribly well: the phrase “children out of wedlock” reads outdated; hell, even referring to two unmarried people having a child as an “issue” to be “tackle[d]” seems a bit quaint these days.
Billboard‘s review of the album itself, which ran in the Nov. 4, 2000 issue, reads easier to contemporary eyes. “Time to take a trip, boys and girls — a trip to a land where funk meets hip-hop. A place where words like abstract, complicated, funky, and mind-blowing all find comfort in their normalcy… this album will have heads spinning and then asking for more.” The Billboard review clearly understands that with Stankonia, OutKast had opened up a kaleidoscopic world that was more of a journey than a statement, one that reveals itself in the detours as much as in the singles; it’s an album not just of the moment, but one to let marinate and savor over a lifetime.
Speaking of singles, third and final of those was “So Fresh, So Clean,” a playfully funky boast track with a staccato, sing-song chorus. For a follow-up to a No. 1 hit, it arguably underwhelmed at No. 30 on the Hot 100, but reached the top 10 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. That chart position doesn’t fully speak to its cultural impact, though, as the song’s title/chorus became an early ’00s catchphrase, even providing the title for a 2005 comedy.
Three years after the bar-raising Stankonia, OutKast’s journey to the pinnacle of pop would reach its apex with 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which nabbed them the Grammy for album of the year and produced two Hot 100 chart-toppers (“Hey Ya!,” “The Way You Move”) and another top 10 (“Roses”) for good measure. But Stankonia, arguably their finest hour – certainly the one that pushed them from rap stars to pop stars – celebrates 20 years this weekend, and it still sounds so fresh, so clean-clean.
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