Albums Released Between 2000-2009: N/A
Classic Mixtape: N/A
Group Albums: OutKast's Stankonia (2000), Speakerboxx/The Love Below (2003), Idlewild (2006)
Biggest Billboard Hits Between 2000-2009: "Ms. Jackson," "Hey Ya," "The Whole World" "So Fresh, So Clean," "Roses"
I know what you're thinking. You're looking at those N/As up there, and then at the title on the group album's list, and you're saying to yourself (or, I dunno, out loud? at your computer screen?), "Wait a minute. How can a guy who really only put out ONE proper rap album in the 2000s be one of the 10 best rappers of the decade?"
Well, allow me to explain. (Or try to, at least. You may still disagree when I am done. I invite you to throw a rotten tomato at your computer screen if that's the case.) It's about the guest verses.
After OutKast's impeccable run of albums in the '90s—SouthernplayalisticcadillacmusiK, ATLiens, and Aquemeni—Andre Benjamin had reached the very height of his craft. Expanding the breadth of rap-lyric subject matter with stunning, beautiful words about alienation, sadness, race, class, confounding expectations, untraditional masculinity, love, remorse and regret, he was rhyming as well as anyone had ever rhymed. On a par with the Rakims, the G Raps, the Biggies.
But, being from the South (Atlanta, GA to be exact) he had reached this point quietly. Because rap's slow-to-turn appreciation apparatus was still having trouble accepting that the "country bumpkins" outside of NYC could produce artistic geniuses like the city slickers from the Mecca. It wasn't until Eminem mentioned him in a breath with Jay Z, 2Pac, Biggie the best-rapper list he rapped on "'Till I Collapse" that people really started appreciating Andre the way we should all have been all along.
Andre was apparently done being a part of a rap duo called OutKast, at least for the time being, every now and then, he'd get the itch to get on the mic. He'd lay some lines over a beat we'd been hearing on the radio. Luckily for us, luckily for the art of rap, when he did this, he'd leave that mic half-melted, half-splinted, with its wires spilling out of its guts.
And that was in 2002, after Stankonia had continued OutKast's unbelievable streak of albums, after Andre had continued to stretch the politically nuanced, observationally acute, emotionally expressive boundaries of rap with material like "B.O.B." and "Spaghetti Junction" and "Ms. Jackson"—who else could encapsulate such a perfect little nugget of wisdom about how life changes, how marriages end, than, "You can plan a pretty picnic/But you can't predict the weather?"
And that came after Andre had retired from rap. You could hear it coming at the end of Stankonia—a string of songs that got very weird, very experimental, and atmospheric. And Andre was singing more than rapping. Apparently, he had gotten bored. It was as if he felt like he'd rapped everything he had to rap, and that his exquisite gift for rhyme just wasn't turning him on any more. So in 2003, when OutKast reached their pinnacle of popularity with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, they did so with two separate albums packaged as one: Big Boi's rap album, and one of full of Andre's soul-funk crooning.
The Love Below is lots of fun. "Hey Ya" is one of boom-you-know-that's-a-classic-the-first-time-you hear it pop songs. And the jazz, Prince-y experimentalism was proof that Andre had more kinds of genius in him than we'd ever know. But man, did it hurt. We rap fans missed the Andre we'd come to love, the rapper Andre. So this is where the story gets interesting. Because while Andre was apparently done being a part of a rap duo called OutKast, at least for the time being, every now and then, he'd get the itch to get on the mic. He'd lay some lines over a beat we'd been hearing on the radio. Luckily for us, luckily for the art of rap, when he did this, he'd leave that mic half-melted, half-splinted, with its wires spilling out of its guts. His best stuff started in 2005, with a guest verse on Atlantan DJ Unk's one-hit wonder "Walk It Out" that scolded rap youngins' for following trends in slang talk ("Walk it out like an usher/If you say 'real talk'/I probably won't trust ya...") and fashion choices ("You're new to this part of town/Your white T, well to me, look like a nightgown...") That's about as good as rapping gets. And it didn't let up. Like he said at the end of his rhyme, "Not saying I'm the best/But til they find something better/I am here, no fear, write me a letter...." An ensuing run of guest verses—on Rich Boy's "Throw Some Ds," UGK's "International Players Anthem (I Choose You)," Devin the Dude's "What a Job"—is among the great runs in rap history. During it, Andre snatched Busta's crown as rap's greatest scene stealer of all time. More than that, he took rhyming to a different place, a more literary place, I would say, in some ways, than it'd ever been before. Read this. It's the opening part of his verse on the remix to Lloyd's butter-soft 2007 R&B hit "You." It tells a story of meeting cute" in vivid rap detail and gorgeous stream-of-consciousness.
I said, "What time do you get off?"
She said, "When you get me off."
I kinda laughed but it turned into a cough
'Cause I swallowed down the wrong pipe
Whatever that means
You know old people say it so it sounds right
So I'm standing there embarrassed
If we were both in paris
I woulda grabbed her by the waist and kissed her
but we in middle of Whole Foods...
That's about as good as any type of writing gets. Powerful, economical, original, evidence of a brain that works a little differently than other brains—as all brains work a little differently than all other brains. But the trick is in the telling, the showing, the ability to express the little unique thoughts we all have all through every day. The too-often ignored minutiae that makes life so varied and colored and tragic and glorious. It's rare that someone is able to put that stuff on page. Nevermind making it rhyme and fall into a rhythm and sound as smooth and exhilarating, as inspiring, really, as Andre makes it sound.
He's as good as there's ever been. Even in small doses. That just makes us notice it more. —Dave Bry