At the height of rock'n'roll – let’s call it the ‘70s – staying true to the genre ostensibly meant dodging, or at least making a show of avoiding the soul-withering specter of “selling out.” In part, that’s what Almost Famous is about, right? The “swill merchants” and the corporations defanging Lester Bangs’ beloved rock for profit and artists sacrificing their integrity for a check from the record label.
On the other hand, the notion of “selling out” seems somewhat alien in the context of hip-hop. Regarding a genre of music that enthusiastically espouses conspicuous consumption and, at this point, embraces capitalism pretty much as an ideology, what would “selling out” even look like? That didn’t stop Andre 3000 from telling The Fader that he felt like a “sell-out” performing on his most recent tour with OutKast bandmate Big Boi.
By now the images of 3000 (née Benjamin) on that tour wearing dark jumpsuits emblazoned with silly, serious, and/or cryptic phrases are ubiquitous on the internet. The outfits were merely a sartorial expression of the rapper’s disillusionment with his chosen profession. As he told The Fader:
“Honestly, just, you know—I didn’t wanna do the tour. We hadn’t performed in 10 years. It was old songs…I’m like, How am I gonna present these songs? I don’t have nothing new to say. So I was like, maybe I can start saying new stuff while doing these old songs. It became a theme where I was more excited about this than the actual show. This is fun, running out in these.”
Later in the article, Benjamin goes on to say that he feels like a sell-out because he was only doing these shows for the money. “It was a decision,” he continued. “I’m 39, I got a 17-year-old kid, and I gotta support certain things.” Yes, one can understand how that might be a little tedious for him. But, seeing as how most of his peers gleefully, unabashedly profess to be supporting only a predilection for jewelry, automobiles, drugs, and ass, I imagine Benjamin’s honest admission that he’s working to be a good father does little to lessen him in the eyes of music fans.
The most disquieting thing about Benjamin’s disillusionment as expressed in the article is the sense that it might drive him from music entirely. Were he to quit right now, Benjamin, both as a member of OutKast and as an occasional solo artist, would leave behind a catalogue of powerful, genre-bending music unlike any of his contemporaries. A) It is safe to say that Andre Benjamin is likely one of very few people in the world who is tired of hearing Andre Benjamin perform his “old songs.” And, B) given the breadth of his talent as a writer and vocalist and the fact that he is not even 40, it is reasonable to believe that Benjamin has years of musical innovation ahead of him.
So, what to do? What to do when you possess seemingly boundless brilliance and energy but are no longer moved by the contents of your own back catalogue? If only we were living in a time where controversial current events were swirling around issues of race and culture. If only we were living at a time when the voices of black men of knowledge and influence were desperately needed on the national stage.
Conscious rap is pretty much a meaningless term. And the mythical, oft-referenced golden era in which the great majority of hip-hop acts penned songs about waking up and fighting the power never actually existed. That said, there have always been rappers who approached issues and talked about the world of their experience in ways that demonstrated some social and political awareness outside of themselves and their own desires. Like Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest, and many others before them, OutKast is one of these groups. Benjamin has been particularly versatile in expressing ideas and crafting nuanced and poignant narratives from black life. It would make sense that, now, when these stories are needed as much as ever to broaden the perception and bolster the resolve of an oppressed people, that someone like Benjamin would find plenty to write about. It’s nothing like a groundswell, but rappers have begun to weigh in on the events in Ferguson, reflecting the spirit of the communities from which the music emanates – for better or worse, this has always been the mandate with which hip-hop was saddled.
It’s sad to think that Andre 3000 sees something ignoble in trotting out “Hey Ya” one more time to put food on the family table. Especially, since we all know that makes him a 100 percent cooler than any rapper who performs the same songs night after night to buy a private jet and then writes a song about that. But those are his feelings and should be respected. Hopefully, he’ll be able to find some thrill in writing and performing new, as-yet-unheard material – material that not only feeds his kid, but that edifies those of us who are still avidly listening.