I’m going to Atlanta to see OutKast because I’ll never see them live again. That’s why my best friend from growing up is flying in from Houston and my road dogs from North Carolina are making the trip. It’s why I bought as many tickets as I could whenever they were available, just to make sure any friend of mine could go if they couldn’t get through Ticketmaster’s site.
We want to do this together, and we know we can’t bet on it ever happening again.
I don’t know that as fact, but it’s the only reasonable assumption. They haven’t toured in more than a decade, and didn’t even tour after their biggest album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Big Boi might rap forever but Andre 3000, rap’s Ralph Ellison, can only hide his distaste for the spectacle enough to make for a good show, but he’s got no desire to keep turning into his 1996 self just because we miss him. This tour is it.
“OutKast At Last,” as the trilogy of shows at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park has been dubbed, is equal parts festival and pilgrimage. They’ll play a couple of festivals after this weekend, sure. But 20 years after introducing themselves and their city to the world, they’ll come back to Atlanta as conquering heroes. They got booed in New York at The Source Awards in 1995, but the BET Hip Hop Awards are held every year in Atlanta. Andre said then “the South got somethin’ to say.” 20 years later, these three shows sold out within minutes of being made available, and the New Yorkers will have to fly into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to see the greatest group in rap history.
The South won this one, and now it’s time to celebrate its greatest heroes.
It’s a much different world from 1994, when OutKast debuted with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The game was bicoastal then, with little attention paid to what went on between the Atlantic and Pacific. The Geto Boys shook up the world with “My Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me” in 1991, Southern rappers were still treated as novelties. Plus, you know, The Geto Boys had a real live rappin’ little person. They didn’t shy away from novelty.
There was something more natural about OutKast. They were two high school students, rapping about the cars they thought were cool, the women they swore were in love with them, and the weed they smoked when their mamas weren’t around. There were moments of precocious clarity, but that was a secondary part of their appeal. With their first album, Andre and Big Boi provided an unrefined glimpse into what was cool in a place that was in the embryonic stages of a mainstream cultural explosion. For the first time, those who only knew Atlanta thanks to videotapes from Freaknik knew what life was like the other 51 weekends of the year.
After introducing us to Atlanta, OutKast introduced us to themselves. They shared the travails of having more fame than money on ATLiens, the struggle to maintain relationships as boys become men on Aquemini, surviving the chaos of superstardom on Stankonia, and the double disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below showed how letting go is often the only way to hold on.
And they did all that, somehow understanding it as they went along, before turning 30. Their first five albums were so outstanding because they simultaneously sounded familiar and like nothing anyone had ever heard. The live instrumentation of Southernplayalistic gave it a Chronic-like feel. ATLiens’ production was still distinct, but could have come from anywhere on the map. Aquemini and Stankonia took funk to space—or wherever Andre went to get those outfits—while its foundation never left the ground. They were fearlessly experimental, but they didn’t do anything stupid. They moved too fast to know where they were going next, but never got so far ahead that they couldn’t be reached, not even when Andre decided to become a crooner.
They were so good that mainstream critics said they “transcended” hip hop, as if such a thing were possible. OutKast could never transcend hip hop because hip hop went wherever they went. They didn’t leave hip hop. They expanded what many thought was possible within the genre. They realized more of its potential than anyone else by daring listeners to appreciate its range. They challenged the world to treat Southwest Atlanta as they would the South Bronx, to appreciate Big Boi’s furry Kangols and Andre’s turban the same way they did Run DMC’s fedoras. At a time when rap had become established enough that many had decided that it was—or wasn’t—each OutKast release became a chance to consider what hip hop could be. [is there anyone you’d say we wouldn’t have today, or wouldn’t be as popular had OutKast not paved the way?]
And it could be anything.
This weekend feels like the end.
It’s been over for a while. It’s been over 15 years since Andre and Big Boi recorded together, somehow scratching out three great albums (including the underrated Idlewild) without being in the same studio. Big Boi still tours and records like he always did, while Andre is only interested enough in rapping to record an incredible verse or two a year. He’d rather act like Jimi than be 3000, and that’ll never change.
Most fans have known this for a while, and that gives “OutKast At Last” a particular quality. The festival tour this summer let the group make some of the money they left on the table by not touring for so long, and it introduced this legendary act to unfamiliar audiences. But no one will be moseying from the Glitch Mob’s stage to see OutKast because they loved “Hey Ya.” The crowd will be there for the headliners, to see a show they’ve waited decades for. They’ll be among friends to see the defining act of many of their lives.
It’s the music they got high to, grew up with and came to understand better as they better understood themselves. It’s the group that showed playas could still be smart and proud of that fact, and the art school weirdo never had to turn in his hood pass when he stopped wearing jerseys. OutKast was themselves, unapologetically, and there was no aesthetic one needed to fit in order to appreciate that.
And for these three weekend shows, Centennial Olympic Park will feel like Candlestick Park in 1966, when the Beatles performed their last show. The difference, unlike the Beatles almost 50 years ago, is anyone can tell this is the end for OutKast. History will be made because there seems to be no other option.
It’s their homecoming, but people are showing up one last time like it’s a homegoing, one last chance to see a loved one. Even if the music will live forever, nothing can top seeing the greatest one last time.