Earlier this year, Troy Ave went through a mini-firestorm—"mini" firestorms being about what he can generate this far into his career—where he had the temerity to call Kendrick Lamar a "weirdo rapper." This was a little different than when Prodigy clowned Redman and Keith Murray, saying in an Infamous skit that they released "that crazy space shit that don't even make no sense."
He clarified that he didn't mean it as a diss.
"Right now, with social media and the internet there’s a lot of different groups that are getting mixed and gelled into one. And it doesn’t go like that. Like with rock music you have different genres of rock. You have pop rock. You have classic rock. You have—help me out here—alternative rock. Now with rap music you can’t just fuse all types of rap. The basis of rap is from the streets. Every artist of any era in rap history, the biggest artist has always been from the streets. Kendrick was raised in it. It’s a difference between being from an area and being in the streets."
Of course, if everyone's weird then no one is, and that more accurately describes the post-social media rap world. But the idea that someone could be shocked by this says more about where hip-hop is these days than it does Troy Ave. Hip-hop's audience is more fractured than ever; there is a space for every weirdo, from suburban overachiever Childish Gambino to...however one would describe Lil B. But a little over a decade ago, the notion that those artists would be close to household names would have seemed ridiculous. Don't get it twisted—hip-hop has always been full of eccentrics and rappers who've gone against the grain, since even before Kool Keith and the Ultramagnetic MCs, before the days of Humpty Hump, as far back as Rammellzee. (If you don't know "Beat Bop," you really have to hear it—not just for its Basquiat-designed cover art.) But for those who don't know, now you do: in the modern era, Andre 3000 paved the way.
Of course, he wasn't the only pioneer. There was a time when Kanye West was too weird for his labelmates on Roc A Fella to take him seriously as a rapper—or so the legend goes. According to Boogz, a producer who worked with Kanye prior to the release of The College Dropout, Kanye "was never a backpacker. He was just a fuckin' star." But he cannily positioned himself as one anyway, because at least Dilated Peoples were liable to let him on a track if he did the beat to it. It let a guy who was too much of an individual to box into the mainstream/conscious rap dichotomy find some purchase in the marketplace.
You've heard that story before. Likewise, you've probably heard a generation of kids—like Odd Future, say—talk about how influenced they were by the alternative style and aesthetic approach of Skate Board P. Pharrell Williams wasn't a rapper (and when he was, he wasn't much of one), but he was an icon for the left-of-center mindset in hip-hop, one that proved a certain amount of stylish savvy that stood apart from the mainstream without seeming to reject it.
But pre-dating both Pharrell, style icon, and Kanye West, everything-icon, going into the new millennium, Andre 3000 was rocking furry boots, wigs, and wild clothing. His style reflected the group's music, which emerged like a butterfly from from the earth-tone funk chrysalis of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to take flight throughout the 1990s—while Kanye was making Hitmen-inspired beats for Jermaine Dupri, and Pharrell was a Teddy Riley protege. OutKast created truly idiosyncratic music from two artists whose yin-yang balance kept Andre from spiraling out from hip-hop altogether. The contrast legitimized Andre's experimentalism. Without Big Boi as a balance, particularly at that time, it's tough to imagine Andre might have been taken seriously.
At least, until he no longer needed him. By the time OutKast crossed over completely, with the world-dominating "Hey Ya" in 2003, they had already split down the middle. The parts were not as great as the whole, although a generation of young artists may not have realized how significant the whole had been. Much as Odd Future's favorite Neptunes tracks came after their popular peak, time has been kind to The Love Below, Andre's final move away from hip-hop. Particularly since he vanished right at the moment when a new generation were looking for heroes. Kanye West and Pharrell continued to spend the 2000s with a presence in the culture, even if it wasn't always their best work. Andre disappeared, popping up every once in awhile to lecture the kids on their tall tees and occasionally destroy a verse, for old time's sake.