Keeping It Surreal

Hip-hop has been popping champagne corks since it cruised into the mainstream in Puff Daddy’s limo. But now that the Rolex-sporting gangsta is as familiar an archetype as the fedora-wearing Mafia don, understanding hip-hop’s success demands examining, in the words of James Baldwin, “the price of the ticket” for access to the culture at large.

And now that Spike Lee has attacked gangsta rap as minstrelsy in Bamboozled and activist rappers like Mos Def and Common have called their peers on their sexism and materialism, it’s time for Outkast, hip-hop’s most stalwart left-fielders, to undercut those images as well. Since 1994, Outkast – Atlanta rappers Andre “Dre” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton – have set themselves against hip-hop’s prevailing winds. Their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, embraced the tricky slang and hyperactive bounce beats of the South when hip-hop was obsessed with West Coast G-Funk, and 1996’s ATLiens and 1998’s Aquemini delved into psychedelia when street credibility was all the rage.

On their astonishing new Stankonia (LaFace/Arista), Outkast explore their own disappointment with hip-hop’s self-satisfied acquisitiveness. But though it attacks the genre’s tunnel vision, the album – which takes its name from George Clinton’s vision of funk as expressing the raw, unruly side of life – does so with joy (and huge doses of absurdity) instead of with the polemics of Public Enemy. With satirical glee, Dre and Big Boi skewer hip-hop’s excessive vanity (“Don’t you think I’m so sexy?” Big Boi mockingly sings on “So Fresh, So Clean”) and crass braggadocio (“How can you measure a nigga by multiple figures?” demands Dre on “Red Velvet”). When they’re not questioning hip-hop’s ethics, Outkast challenges its impassive just-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. The most moving song on Stankonia, “Ms. Jackson,” is a lament on the inevitability of broken relationships (“You can plan a pretty picnic,” Dre croons, “but you can’t predict the weather”) with a vulnerability that owes more to the sensitive soul of the Stylistics than the brusque machismo of most rap.

Though Outkast eloquently express their dissatisfaction with hip-hop, it’s the group’s all-encompassing sonics that speak louder than words: “B.O.B.” unites drum-’n’-bass beats, a gospel choir, and one of the most thrilling guitar solos since Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”; “I’ll Call Before I Come” merges buzzing electro and ecstatic, Parliament-inspired choruses; “Humble Mumble” brings together gliding, jazzy rhythms and staccato breakbeats.

Stankonia is among the most exciting albums of the year, not only because it brazenly addresses hip-hop’s spiritual emptiness (other well-intentioned rappers have tried) but because it musically surpasses the most innovative work of street production dons like Swizz Beatz, Manny Fresh, and Timbaland. By offering something for both the mind and the ass, to borrow from George Clinton’s slogan, Outkast, like Gang of Four and Funkadelic before them, make revolution you can dance to.

While Outkast challenge hip-hop’s “keep it real” ethos, Jay-Z lazily flows with the status quo on his fifth album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). The first single, “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” trots out all of the genre’s familiar “player” tropes (“Six Model chicks / Six bottles of Cris”) and even reprises the rapper’s rundown of his favorite New York nightclubs last heard on his 1999 hit “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up).” Elsewhere, on “Get Your Mind Right Mami,” the rapper plays Henry Higgins to a nonjiggy Eliza Doolittle, counseling her to “say hi to Gucci, say hi to Prada,” while on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” (presumably about his role in the 1999 stabbing of music-industry exec Lance “Un” Rivera), he bitterly remarks, “I thought this was America people,” sounding every bit the clichéd Mafia don implied in the album’s subtitle. This sort of cartoonish crime-boss stuff is expected from reigning rappers, but Jay-Z, unlike Puffy or DMX, rose to the top on the wittiness of raps like “Foundation,” where the rapper cleverly boasted that he was “running the New York night scene with one eye closed like Peter Gatien.” Sadly, Jay-Z now pledges that he’ll “stick to the script” of “money, hoes and bitches.” If The Dynasty represents the one-dimensional fare he’s offering, it’s time for a new screenwriter.

Keeping It Surreal