We may have all jumped the gun yesterday in reaction to the rumors that OutKast would be going on tour in 2014, though the fact that Andre 3000 and Big Boi have contractual obligations that require them to deliver music to Jive before they can release collaborations through other labels has always been a structural factor that keeps my hope alive. But the prospect of the Atlanta duo on stage and recording new music together is exciting to me not just because I’m a sucker for fast, funny, exceptionally clear MCing. As a feminist fan of hip-hop, I’ve always loved OutKast in part because Andre and Big Boi mostly appear to love women back, and because when they get angry at individual women in their songs, they often seem to know the difference between calling out specific behavior and targeting women as a class.
None of this is to say that OutKast has a perfect record when it comes to using sexist slang to describe women. Early songs like “Jazzy Belle” certainly reflect some of the generalized misogyny that can seep into hip-hop like poison, while “Mamacita” spins an odd fantasy of a man’s girlfriend’s best friend slagging him to try to seduce her, and suggests that the woman respond with violence.
But that palette gets more complex quickly. On Aquemini, “Da Art Of Storytellin, Part 1″ has female characters who have sex with many different men, but the male narrator who pursues many of them isn’t in any way superior to them–in fact, he’s ignoring the daughter he’s supposed to pick up in favor of a tryst. That equality of trashiness and irresponsibility shows up again in the funny, mean, self-flagellating “We Luv Deez Hoes,” several years later. If women behave the way they do, it’s in part because men and the society they’re part of give them plenty of incentive.
“Da Art Of Storytellin, Part 2″ spins an uncanny fascination of a restless Mother Earth furious about mistreatment that OutKast describes in terms of misogyny, sexual violence, and sexual inequality, saying “Guess she could not take it anymo’ / Raping her heavenly body like a ho, coochie so’ / From niggas constantly fucking her, never loving her / Never showing appreciation.” It’s an image that returns later in “Gasoline Dreams,” when OutKast warns that “Mother Nature’s now on birth control.”
And in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” Big Boi meditates on the joys and challenges of fatherhood, reflection on how “One moment you frequent the booty clubs and / The next four years you & somebody’s daughter / Raisin’ y’all own young’n now that’s a beautiful thang / That’s if you’re on top of your game / And man enough to handle real life situations,” in a narrative that examines the difficulties of transitioning to straight employment for the sake of your family when you have a record of involvement in the drug trade.
Stankonia, the near-perfect album that followed, is even richer. “Ms. Jackson,” the chronicle of the dissolution of Andre 3000’s relationship with Erykah Badu, with whom he had a son, is one of the best breakup songs ever recorded because it’s so balanced. The track is full of specific and justifiable frustration at the singer’s mother-in-law. But also dense with confusion about why his friends side with a woman who views him with such suspicion, and with veiled acknowledgements of imperfection. Even as Andre declares “And yes I will be present on the first day of school, and graduation,” he doesn’t promise to be present in between those milestone dates.
Andre and Big Boi have bragged about their abilities to sexually please women before–“Now, my oral illustration be like clitoral stimulation /
To the female gender, ain’t nothin better,” Andre suggested in “ATLiens.” But they go into greater detail about their sexual educations in “I’ll Call Before I Come,” a track that’s unusually in that it doesn’t just provide the men an opportunity to talk up their oral sex skills, but provides women space to talk about what they like, too. Andre may promise that “I will pause for your cause,” and Big Boi may explain that “I used to not give a damn / But now I make it a point just to please you / So you can go back and tell all your buddies, I Pretty D’d you.” If the song had ended there, it would be a familiar entry in the canon of men brandishing feminist cred as a way to enhance their reputation as masculine lovers. But it doesn’t. After their verses are over, Gangsta Boo comes swaggering in to flaunt her wealth and to tell her male listeners that they out to be grateful for her sexual attention: “Groupie you need to be glad you even knew me / Do me and tell all my friends you truly blew me.” And Eco finishes out the song by spinning a scenario where an unsatisfying lover: “Peeped in the window saw me cooking shrimp / In high heels and washing dishes / For Daddy Fat Sax and it’s something I couldn’t explain / I know it’s a dirty, dirty game, but you should called before you came.” Andre and Big Boi may start a conversation about female sexual satisfaction, but women get the last word on the track.
That kind of discussion shows up elsewhere in OutKast’s canon. To my ear, one of the hallmarks of their work, intentional or no, is that women are often present on their songs as participants, contributing original material, rather than having women’s voices show up as samples removed from their original context and repurposed for a male artist’s designs. Sometimes that’s meant bringing in romantic partners, like Badu. Sometimes it’s meant supporting promising female rappers, like Gangsta Boo, who was the first female member of Three 6 Mafia, and more recently, Janelle Monáe, who got some of her first national exposure on the soundtrack to Idlewild.
“Call The Law,” a duet with Big Boi from that album, is a haunting ghost story foretold that prefigures her world on her solo albums. “Baby how could you just go and / Change it all you turned my spring to fall / I needed you you know / But when the love is gone it’s time to go,” Monáe laments. Big Boi provides an alternate history of their relationship, suggesting that “It seems I tripped I must have slipped / After exchanging of the rings these things you give me lip / But not the kissing of the bride the dipping of the groom.” It’s an awful portrait of people who once loved each other trapped in a slow-growing, mutual animosity, a theme that showed up again earlier this year on Big Boi’s solo track “She Hate Me,” in which he tries to mend a relationship damaged by his work schedule.
There’s a great deal of discussion of what hip-hop’s middle age might look like, whether it’s Jay-Z’s status as “a business, man,” Kanye West’s embrace of a kind of conspicuous consumption that was previously reserved for wealthy white people, or the way Eminem can’t seem to out-grow the anti-gay slurs that so memorably punctuated his early work. I’d love to see an OutKast reunion that intervenes in this conversation, and provides a new bridge between that discussion and the periodic flares of lament about the misogyny that shows up in so many hip-hop tracks.
One of the reasons I’ve loved OutKast so deeply and for so long is that their work has served as a reminder of what hip-hop has always been able to do when it comes to telling stories about men growing up and figuring out their relationships with women. That doesn’t mean they never get angry. It certainly doesn’t mean that they never say anything ugly or mean. But it does mean that they’re committed to an ongoing relationship with women in which both parties are equals and expected to be equally responsible for each other’s care. That’s a standard that plenty of other artists in plenty of other genres have yet to reach. And it’s an art of storytelling hip-hop’s detractors on feminist grounds, and its defenders who also embrace misogyny could stand to learn from.