17 YEARS AFTER OUTKAST’S SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW
By: Nicolas André
Click above to listen to Nicolas's playlist inspired by this article.
Few have captured the contradictory nature of hip-hop as well as Outkast. The variety of their personas alone speaks to their transcendence: from playas to aliens to pimps to philosophers—André 3000 and Big Boi found themselves outside of the norm, all while staying inside their Cadillacs. The worlds they created were both hedonistic and materialistic like most hip-hop albums of the 90s and 00s but reimagined what masculinity could look like inside music. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003) was yet another reinvention on Outkast’s part but also proves to be a relic of hip-hop’s early misogyny.
The double album is the only Outkast project without a portmanteau in its title, which had continuously demonstrated Outkast’s ability to clash words and worlds alike. This time, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a separation, and in it, Big Boi and André 3000 are unable to escape the world’s they generated together throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Here, Big and André have nothing else to do but critique their failings as playas, fathers, and men.
The prevalence of misogyny in hip-hop has increasingly become a heated debate, specifically regarding representation in music. If not pointing out our gullibility for aesthetic melodies and rhythms, hip-hop embodies much of what is contradictory in pop-culture. This imbalance is often held in place by dominant rhetoric in music, where male voices overwhelmingly and tirelessly make a spectacle of female subjectivity.
In its purest form, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is a separation. It weighs the incongruence of love and masculinity and finds imbalance: the role of masculine subjectivity is needed for the genre but contradicts the emotional sensitivity and openness required for the ideas of love the album is still so preoccupied with exploring.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below depicts Outkast’s struggle to find balance in a world of false binaries. 2003 saw albums like 50 Cents’ Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Jay-Z’s The Black Album, which instantiated an epoch of pimp and hustler personas. Lines like “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” were what fueled hip-hop as a largely misogynistic genre. And, of course, Outkast had never been the exception. Just as they’ve flipped from playas to poets, the duo has fluidly mused about ladies, bitches, and hoes. “Roses,” off The Love Below, perhaps the worst case, sees Andre grouch over the song’s fictitious Caroline: “She’s the reason for the word ‘bitch’”; with Big Boi following suit at the song’s outro: “Crazy Bitch/(Bitch) Crazy Bitch/(Stupid-ass bitch) Crazy bitch.”
"Speakerboxxx/The Love Below depicts Outkast’s struggle to find balance in a world of false binaries"
Found on Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx, “Bowtie” is a song which mastered the extravagance of gangsterhood: “Crocodile on my feet/Fox fur on my back/Bowtie ‘round my neck/That’s why they call me the gangster mack/In the Cadillac.” The track is horn-driven, assertive, and conflates sex-appeal with materialism. Speakerboxxx is not nearly as daring as its counterpart. But Big knows it is a mass appeal record. Yet, at the center is a man unable to reconcile his career with his responsibility toward his family. “The Rooster” is as complex and humane as anything off The Love Below, with Big Boi paralleling his anguish to his commitment “to the wax.” Big demonstrates his failures as a husband and a father on a hip-hop record, and it has mostly been forgotten. Almost every track features degradation of some form, and yet, Outkast is aware of how lonely this leaves them.
The Love Below is often too carnal for its own good. The concept is centered around André attempting to find himself, in his words, a “sweet bitch.” Sonics range from the frustrated guitar jerks of “Love Hater” to the ebullient drums of “Spread” to the otherworldly mixture of “Hey Ya!” André avoids rapping as much as possible and instead attempts to find a new self, someone closer to Prince perhaps. Anyone else would have failed such a transformation, but André 3000 is on a constant mission of self-discovery. But, his vulnerability eventually gets the best of him. The “ice cold” motif that runs through The Love Below is evocative of a man too afraid to love, or just too scared of getting dumped. On “Hey Ya!” he forms a call-and-response with a crowd of men, ultimately warning them to stay detached from their emotions: “Now what’s cooler than being cool? (Ice Cold!)”
"What makes Outkast unique is their continuous attempt to reconcile their chauvinism with palatable self-destruction, with a natural inclination to grow. "
André 3000 and Big Boi demonstrate that misogyny in hip-hop is not just a result of their shortcomings; it’s a product of the genre and the culture that appreciates the language. What makes Outkast unique is their continuous attempt to reconcile their chauvinism with palatable self-destruction, with a natural inclination to grow. But, without each other, Big Boi and Three Stacks fail to capture the balance they afforded one another on previous albums.
To quote bell hooks in 1994, “It is much easier to attack gangsta rap than to confront the culture that produces that need.” Outkast’s music has always been for, well, outcasts. But the substance of their lyrics has often been carried by the objectification of women. SB/TLB captures the contradictory nature of masculinity in hip-hop: on “The Way You Move” Big attempts to seduce and on “Vibrate” tries to escape his masturbation addiction. In the end, a cold computerized-voice states, “L.O.V.E...Not...found” and both men are left wondering what they could have done differently.
While responding to Outkast’s 2014 Coachella performance—which was part of their 20th anniversary reunion tour—writer and columnist Mychal Denzel Smith notes a new sense of discomfort at a point in the performance when André 3000 asks the crowd: “Are there any bitches here tonight?”--ultimately, making Outkast something of the past.
I imagine this double backing of opinion has marred a lot of people’s playlists. I used to treasure my mixed CDs. I remember seeing “Hey Ya!” on MTV, and the next day having a CD-full of Outkast songs. In this way, it becomes hard to detach oneself from songs that have profound meaning, songs that have potentially raised you.
While the prevalence of misogyny in hip-hop demonstrates a clear imbalance in the fair representation of womxn, and especially Black womxn, interpreting these modes of oppression as products of music is far the reality. Outkast’s attempt at redefining themselves demonstrates a continuous resistance against popular white culture. Their experience is informed by intersectional and multiplicative understandings of the world around them. Outkast couldn’t figure a way out the chauvinism around them. What remains are artists trying to inform newer generations that might not know the struggle of hip-hop’s forefathers.