NEW YORK — At a downtown club packed with record industry insiders, OutKast is bringing some Southern flavor to Manhattan.
Before a crowd that includes Sean "Puffy" Combs and Busta Rhymes, the rap duo is previewing tracks from its upcoming album, "Stankonia," and giving New Yorkers a lesson in Atlanta slang.
"The more crunk y'all get, the more crunk we get," rapper Dre (not to be confused with producer-rapper Dr. Dre) tells them, shaking his long, straightened hair and pacing the stage shirtless in a pair of bright red sailor pants.
"And 'crunk' means to crank it up," his partner Big Boi adds, looking more like a standard-issue rapper in tight, shoulder-length braids, an oversized Seattle Mariners jersey and a thick gold necklace.
"If you all feel the heat, get crunk with it," Dre says. "That's real."
When OutKast launches into "Bombs Over Baghdad," the first single from the new record, the audience does indeed get crunk (the operative roots are "drunk" and "cranked up"), grooving on the song's wild rhythms, machine-gun rhymes and soaring, Parliament-style chorus.
Backed by two guitarists, a DJ and three singers, OutKast imbues the song with a rousing, anthem-like quality that is uncommon in the world of live hip-hop. The performance partly explains why "Stankonia," which arrives in stores Tuesday, is one of the year's most anticipated hip-hop albums.
On its fourth effort, OutKast (which plays the House of Blues on Thursday) has ventured into a stylistic experiment that takes hip-hop beyond its traditional territory, replacing samplers with live musicians and calling on a host of influences--including George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Prince--that Dre and Big Boi consider innovators of "the stankest funk around."
"Stankonia" features OutKast's usual quotient of upbeat party songs posing as quasi-political rants. "Bombs Over Baghdad," for example, is hardly a protest of the Gulf War, instead serving as an amped-up reflection on a nation in the throes of victory. Elsewhere, "Ms. Jackson" turns the usual "I hate my baby's momma" genre upside down with a tender, gently propulsive ballad in which we finally hear a pair of rappers admit they may have been wrong.
But the record's most interesting moments come at the end, where "Toilet Tisha," "Slum Beautiful" and "Stank Love" transcend their titles and become gorgeous, Prince-style soul. Dre's falsetto riffing is reminiscent of "Purple Rain"-era balladry, demonstrating that OutKast has mastered more than just rapid-fire rhymes.
While the two have enjoyed combined sales of 4.5 million for their previous releases, they're setting their sights considerably higher for "Stankonia."
"I'm thinking at least 5 million," Big Boi says, bolstering his bluster with a vote of confidence he received from Combs at the MTV Video Music Awards. "He kind of gave it up, Puffy. We may not like all the music that he do, but he's a real businessman and he knows what's gonna fly. He knows what's gonna sing."
"We wanted to bring the fun back into the music-making instead of doing the same thing all the time," Big Boi says later, riding in the group's van after dropping Dre and the rest of their entourage off at the East Village nightspot Joe's Pub. "Being repetitious is not what we specialize in. Everybody knows that we're nonconformists in everything we do, whether it's music, dress, the videos or whatever. We put our hands on everything."
As unlikely as it may sound, OutKast traces its roots back to a chance meeting at a mall: The Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta was where 16-year-olds Antwan Patton (Big Boi) and Andre Benjamin (Dre) first met in 1992. The two both lived in the rough-and-tumble East Point section of Atlanta and were students at Tri-Cities High School, alma mater of the R&B groups TLC and Xscape.
During school, the two would try to out-rhyme one another during competitions in the cafeteria. After class, they'd head for Rico Wade's basement studio, where they'd hang with local hopefuls Big Gipp and Khujo, who would later form the Goodie Mob. Wade made his name as one-third of the Organized Noize producing team, whose credits include TLC, Eric Clapton and En Vogue and which later signed Patton and Benjamin to a deal.
Their first single, "Player's Ball," topped the rap charts for six weeks in 1993, and the following year their debut album, "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik," surpassed the 1 million sales mark.
With 1996's "ATLiens," OutKast nabbed the No. 2 spot on the rap chart and cemented its position as standard-bearer for the new, soulful hip-hop sound of what's come to be called the Dirty South.
Two years later, "Aquemini" catapulted the band to the 2 million sales level. But in addition to garnering perfect ratings from Rolling Stone and the Source, the record stirred controversy.