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6,648 out of 10,000

I had a conversation with Outkast’s Stankonia CD the other night. “Stankonia,” I said, “What is it about you that bugs me? You’ve got some really good songs and some genuinely funky shit going on, but I can’t seem to like you. What is up?”

The Stankonia CD said nothing. CDs are inanimate objects.

So I picked the disc up out of its jewel box and popped it into the player one more time. Realization quickly dawned with the Intro. The vocoder voice spells out the name of the band. Really all the introduction you need, but then there’s some blatant P-Funk jabbering about being seven light years below the Earth and it’s funky and such. Then a young lady starts cooing as Andre 'Dre' Benjamin and Antoine 'Big Boi' Patton announce that it’s Bouncing BOUNCing BouncingBouncing, building to what should be the first song. Then instead of the first song, some other inaudible voice starts mumbling. Then it happens.

BREAK!

The guys shout, and the opening segment is over. We will hear this “BREAK!” more than nine times over the course of this album. Each time it puts my mind on reset. With seventeen songs and an endless succession of skits, it’s nearly impossible to keep the necessary momentum to maintain interest. If only they’d …

BREAK!

“Gasoline Dreams” finally starts the album proper, assuredly belting out a scorching chorus, asking the question “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline?” The beat kicks and the gasoline hisses, the P’s pop deliciously, asking, “Don’t everybody like the taste of Apple Pie?” Everybody does, and everybody should like this track.

BREAK!

“So Fresh, So Clean” showcases the duo’s principal weapon, the P-Funky falsetto chorus. They half-whisper these little hooks, which carry several songs on this record. The hook certainly carries this jaunty little number. An even stronger hook helps “Ms. Jackson” escape its own earnestness.

Sorry, “Ms. Jackson”. This number fairly catchily enumerates the gentleman’s case to his ex’s mother that he is a good man and a good father. What is it about hip-hop that makes wholesome songs about being a good guy so skeeving? The same thing that makes any song about being a good guy crap. Hell, Ricky Nelson didn’t sing about what a nice boy he was, but about having a girl in every port. You want to list the nice things about yourself? Write a resume. You want to write a song, you’d better have dark fantasies of violence and sex. You’re upset that Rap is so potty-mouthed, violent, and negative? Well you’re racist, elitist, or a pussy. Rap isn’t nasty enough. Pop music still hasn’t come anywhere near painting or prose when it comes to exposing the evil and the Id. We’re just getting serious now. Don’t try to pass off positivity as truth.

Likewise “I’ll Call Before I Come”. There’s a fine falsetto chorus, but the message of proper bedroom politics makes this number a sexual public service announcement. They’re such good guys, they’re even good in the sack. How unsexy. They pretend to respect women, but I’ll bet the condescension on “We Luv Deez Hoes” is the real story. Like “I’ll Call Before I Come”, this number pretends to be stupidly raunchy. It does have much funny sexual silliness, but there’s a sly message of black positivity, or as usual, negativity, calling black women fake, “From the weaves to the fake eyes to the fake nose down to the toes / HaHaHaHaHaHa We luv deez hoes”. No they don’t.

“Snappin’ and Trappin” is straight up Rap, and this reveals another problem. The guys’ raps make me space. I don’t think they’re that good at rapping. Outkast reminds me of The Roots. Probably the overemphasized intelligence and the live instruments, but also, the way the raps just don’t grab. I know the lyrics aren’t always supposed to be Dylan in Rap; it’s the final James Brown inversion of rhythm over melody - the singing as drums. Still, if you’re rapping and it’s not that interesting, there’s a real problem on a hip-hop record. These guys make up for it with their Funk moves and inventive production by Outkast, Organized Noize, and Earthtone III, but …

BREAK!

“B.O.B.” is truly something new and something very good. The incremental speeding up of the chorus of “Bombs over Baghdad” adds an excitement that’s impossible to deny. Throw in some fierce guitar soloing and three different parts to the song, here’s the track that makes the whole album worth it. Written overseas during the dawning of another war, it’s very difficult to discern what this song has to do with Baghdad. There are references to being on tour and to the ghetto (as well as a troubling reference to “ragtops” but check the paragraph on the evil and the Id), but I don’t get the connection. Maybe it fixes a time in history, or maybe it just sounds cool. A great number.

There are some other good numbers, including “Xplosion” which is the best straight-up rap, and “?” which combines the sound of booze pouring (you can hear the alcohol) with squishy synthesizer noises. On the other hand, “Toilet Tisha” doesn’t work. It’s a well-meaning number sympathizing with a young pregnant girl on the brink of infanticide or suicide. A fine subject, but it just drags, and drips with the album-poisoning earnestness heard elsewhere. An interlude with a spoken passage by Big Boi, as opposed to a rapped passage, shows how far from hip-hop’s groove Outkast has gotten.

The P-Funky falsettos dominate the long second half of the album, and they wear thin. I heard Snoop Doggy Dogg’s "Who Am I (What's My Name)" on the radio the other day, and it still sounds great. Of course, it’s just a blatant rip-off of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”. All those Dr. Dre productions of the time ripped P-Funk unashamedly, while Outkast are trying to write their own hooks. So why do I like Snoop’s song better? It has to do with Lionel Trilling’s truth that "Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal."

I know I’m penalizing a cool hip-hop act for making an overlong album, and for an unfortunate choice…

BREAK!

…and I know that CDs are programmable, but damn it, I need to enjoy a record through and through. It can be done. Look at Old Dirty Bastard’s Nigga Please. Not a bad track there. There’s no corny stuff. There are some things to enjoy on “Stankonia”, but this thing is getting raves it’s too bloated and broken-up to merit.

 

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