Outkast’s 20 greatest songs – ranked!

The title seems to refer to Outkast’s refusal to be constrained by musical boundaries and expectations as much as to the social struggles detailed in its lyrics: Liberation more or less abandons rapping entirely. Anziché, there are vocals – from Erykah Badu and Cee-Lo Green, among others – and a defiant message: “You have a choice to be who you wants to be.”

In their early days, Outkast apparently used to rap while running to better refine their breath control. Certainly, their rapping sounded incredible on arrival. Musically straightforward compared with what was to come, their debut single – detailing how drug dealers and pimps spend Christmas Day – was a fiery demonstration of their lyrical skills.

“The south got something to say,” snapped André 3000 when Outkast were booed at the 1995 Source awards. In truth, they had already proved his point. A definitive moment in the history of southern hip-hop, their debut album’s title track twisted Dr Dre’s soulful west coast G-funk blueprint into something stunning and geographically distinct. Often imitated, never equalled.

Big Boi’s album in the split Speakerboxx/Love Below double set was overshadowed by André’s – home to Hey Ya! and Roses – but its highlights were vertiginous. The ferocious, distorted synths, frantic beats and soul interludes of GhettoMusick proved his partner didn’t have the monopoly on thrilling experimentation.

A seven-and-a-half-minute-long, supremely funky and conscious-rhyme-laden introduction to the Dungeon Family, or at least part of said sprawling crew. Production is by Organized Noize, with guest appearances from Goodie Mob’s Big Gipp and Cee-Lo Green, the latter entirely consuming the first third of the track.

The soundtrack to an unloved film, Idlewild was released to a decidedly mixed reception, but Morris Brown is an under-appreciated delight. An explosion of fantastic melodic hooks and deft rapping, featuring an early guest appearance by Janelle Monáe and powered by the marching band mentioned in its chorus, it should have been a huge hit.

A bold statement of artistic intent in the face of criticism, Return of the G’s title is a double bluff. André’s verse pours scorn on gangsta rap – then resurgent thanks to the cliche-ridden platinum-seller Master P – and offering “time travellin’, rhyme javelin, something mind-unravellin’” as an alternative.

In which Big Boi and André wittily cordon off a beautiful but cash-obsessed lady: “One of them freaks who gets geeked at the sight of an ATM receipt.” The way it turns the profoundly unpromising phrase “roses really smell like poo” into an unshakeable earworm and a global hit single is – sorry – not to be sniffed at.

A track that revels in Outkast’s outsider status within hip-hop – “greetings Earthlings!” – with the cool confidence of people who know they have the talent to back the boast they are not just different, but better. The beat – based on the Five Stairsteps’ 1967 hit Danger She’s a Stranger – fits the brooding mood perfectly.

Things got strange fast in Outkast’s world. On the surface, Elevators is just a hymn to their early success (André punctures the celebratory mood by suggesting he is still broke), but the music is unsettlingly odd: weird, scattered electronic bleeps, a chorus that sounds like something from a musical in which the entire cast is off their heads.

There is a distinct hint of musical satire about Crumblin’ Erb. Its intro sounds remarkably like the opening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, while the gorgeous chorus mirrors its message of confusion about “this crazy world” … at least until it announces that the answer is to skin up, an activity it lauds as “simply marvellous”.

A lot of Outkast’s third album was focused on the bond between the duo in a climate where André’s outlandishness had provoked criticism while Big Boi’s ostensibly more straightforward persona had not. Its darkly compelling title track goes so far as to present them as twins; the hook, nel frattempo, bore the influence of Prince.

If the central theory of André’s verse – that your bedroom skills while procreating affect the quality of your child’s life – doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, everything else about ATLiens is perfect, from the warped Chambers Brothers sample to the quality of the bragging: “I’m cooler than a polar bear’s toenails!"

Outkast had referenced George Clinton before, but SpottieOttieDopaliscious was the point at which the duo really laid claim to being P-Funk’s hip-hop heirs, with all the head-turning weirdness that entailed: dubby echo and roots reggae-inspired horns, samples of prog-era Genesis’s guitar filigree, rhymes closer to spoken word than rapping.

Behind Ms Jackson’s effortless singalong chorus – “woooooh!” – lurks a clever, complicated meditation on a relationship collapsing, addressed not to the ex-partner, but their mother. Its brilliance lies in the range of emotions it conveys: it is variously sad, angry and fatalistic; it alternately turns on the charm and sighs in exasperation.

Of all the songs that have achieved wedding disco ubiquity, Hey Ya! is flat-out the weirdest. Inspired by the Smiths, concerning a relationship in crisis, consisting of the first four guitar chords André learned repeated ad infinitum, it sounds simultaneously sketchy and completely irresistible, proof of a genius for warped pop that its author has sadly seldom called on since.

Big Boi and André’s differing styles stunningly juxtaposed: the former wittily recalls a one-night stand in a car park at warp-speed, the latter suddenly shifts the subject to a friend dying of a heroin overdose while pregnant. That a verse by the great Slick Rick was cut from the album version without diminishing the track speaks volumes.

So Fresh, So Clean’s chorus had prosaic beginnings – Rico Wade of the producers Organized Noize started singing new lyrics to Joe Simon’s 1977 soul track Before the Night Is Over while showering. It works perfectly as a compliment to the rhymes about sexual prowess, conjuring up an utterly infectious, anticipatory bring-on-the-night mood.

A track that occasioned a court case from the titular civil rights heroine’s lawyers – whether the 91-year-old even knew about it remains a moot point – Rosa Parks is just fantastic: a funny, killer chorus, a nod to Sly Stone in the ad-libs, a lyric that alternately lauds Outkast’s success and ponders their long-term future.

There were more obviously commercial tracks on Stankonia than its lead single, but BOB worked, in the words of André, “like a slap in the face”. It isn’t an anti-war track, although its agitated sound – influenced by hearing drum’n’bass while visiting the UK – seemed to capture a mood of crisis; it was intended to signal Outkast’s distance from then-prevalent trends in hip-hop (“too smooth, too cool,” according to its author). It never lets up, pummelling the listener with frenzied rapping, massed vocals and a Hendrix-inspired guitar solo in the name of what the lyrics call “power music”. You couldn’t imagine another hip-hop artist releasing it – the perfect encapsulation of Outkast’s uniqueness.

A 25th anniversary deluxe and expanded edition of ATLiens is released 27 August on Legacy Recordings.

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