Whenever conversation arises about the future of hip-hop, two extremes are brought up: that obscure avant-garde artists will expand the boundaries for all concerned, or that repetitive crass commercialism will beat the music like a dead horse. The truth is that most of the future hip-hop won't sound like the sonic experiments of Reaching Quiet or the recycled Puffy redundancy; it will be determined by successful, creative artists. More specifically, the future of hip-hop is Outkast. As universally respected figureheads of the Southern rap renaissance, Big Boi and Andre 3000 are probably hip-hop's most important group, and 'Stankonia' is a fine follow-up in their tradition of diverse and brilliant albums.
Taking its cues from the more intense moments of of 'Aquemini' (think 'Return of The G' and 'Skew It on the Bar-B'), 'Stankonia' is a strange u-turn from the live instrumentation sound the duo nurtured on their last two albums. Taking their refined funk sound and pushing it to bursting point with heavy drums and dense accompaniments, Outkast have produced an album that sounds like few other hip-hop records I've ever heard. The shimmering amorphous sounds on songs like 'Slum Beautiful' and 'Ms Jackson' would be bizarre ambient tracks without the violent percussion underneath, propelling the tracks commandeered by the two ATLiens. Between the barest (and worst) song on the album, 'Ill Call Before I Come,' and the frantic first single 'B.O.B.' is a cavalcade of rare musical moments, and each track stands out as unique from those before and after. It's a shame to say this (I really like 'Deltron 3030') but 'Stankonia' is an LP of such production brilliance that nothing this year comes close.
Mentioning 'Deltron 3030,' its notable how these two spaced-out albums differ in terms of lyrical content. While Del took the futuristic sounds as a suggestion for similarly fantastic rhymes, 'Stankonia' is, like all Outkast releases, based firmly in tales of the MCs lives. 'Red Velvet,' with its scratches fading in and out and the constant rhythmic beeps on the surface, is a gem-filled lesson to their contemporaries about humility. 'We Luv Deez Hoez,' with the surreal melodic drip of the beat and instantly likeable bass line, has the Goodie Mob joining their Dungeon Family partners to warn about the less-than-honourable members of the fair sex *cough*. This juxtaposition of other world sounds and down-to-earth topics makes a one of a kind disc. The rhymes themselves, however, are almost irrelevant; Outkast have always have fantastic deliveries and 'Stankonia' is as irresistible in the respect as any of their other work. The main detriment comes on the few occasions where the duo don't spit on one of their tracks; still, the two tracks which follow this formula ('Toilet Tisha,' and 'Stankonia') work well within the context of a full album.
Like their other albums, 'Stankonia' is a collection of fantastic songs that, when put together in proper sequence, with skits and all, sound a lot better. The minute long intro offers a mild adjustment to the aim of the group on this outing, before leaping into the awesome guitar fuelled madness of 'Gasoline Dreams.' The skits are amusing and brief enough, with my favourites including 'Drink Again,' which leads into the incredible (but too short!) Andre solo '?,' and the humourous parody 'Cruisin in the ATL,' which begets the sublime 'Gangsta Shit.' I expect the skits will get tiresome after further listening, but there's no faulting the tremendous work the group have done to create a whole album, rather than merely a collection of songs.
It's tempting to think that Outkast will never fall off, and that every 2 years or so of the foreseeable future they'll pop up and give us another masterpiece. As of now, they're 4/4 in terms of quality, nearly alone in terms of consistency for current hip-hop groups (as it stands, The Roots are their only real competition). 'Stankonia' may take you a couple of listens to get used to, and its sometimes strange to hear Andre with odd vocal effects when he'd sound better just rhyming normally. But there is nothing more than a few minor irks on 'Stankonia,' nothing which takes away from the complete sound of the release. Some will say that the guests were unnecessary, or the beats were overdone, or that Andre and Big Boi should stop singing right now, but I'm perfectly happy with 'Stankonia' as it is.