This week's Song of the Week could be praised for a thousand reasons. It was a seminal, breakthrough hit for a hip-hop duo that turned out to be one of the biggest pop acts of the past twenty years. It's a fascinating--and effortlessly lovable--four minutes of music.
But mostly, I just miss Outkast.
Any artist can aspire to write a catchy pop melody. Any songwriter can be overtly political. The best artists find ways to subvert the mainstream by combining irresistible music with a challenging--and often subtle--lyric. The social power of pop doesn't lie in topical songwriters preaching to their choir, or in gifted producers writing paint-by-numbers party songs to fund their new beach house. It's making a sorority girl sing along with "B.O.B." before she's even had time to consider the lyrics. Then, bored in class, one week (or month, or year) later, that song's in her head, and she hears it again for the first time. Outkast got her thinking by getting her dancing.
There's a great tradition of this. Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is both a potent, memorable hook and a lyrical tour de force; it supports both the most casual and academic listen. The Beatles "A Day In the Life" invited a captive generation to look at themselves in the mirror (yet again). R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World..." is an endlessly fun roller-coaster, challenging the listener to keep up; only later do they realize where that ride really took them. The list goes on...
But perhaps no artists in the last twenty years have done this with less fear and more success than Outkast. It's as if they save their most challenging lyrics for the tracks they know will be the biggest hit:
--"Rosa Parks" examines a "me-first" ethos in the 90's hip-hop community, asking what happens when one rapper seeks to put another in the "back of the bus."
--"B.O.B." (for my money, the best rap song of the past fifteen years) develops an analogy between America's wars abroad and the wars within its own inner cities.
--"Ms. Jackson" is as strong an illustration of a complex relationship as you'll ever find in a multi- platinum hit.
--"Hey Ya!" is the ultimate anti-pop song, subverting its lovey-dovey facade music at every turn. It finally makes this entire blog's premise it explicit: "Y'all don't wanna hear me, you just wanna dance." (Side note: I'll never forget seeing a drunk sorority girl scream along to this part, prompting her date scream over the party, "I think this song's actually SAD...")
--In the bluster of post-9/11 hits, "The Whole World" was a multi-dimensional, measured, lovable reminder that none of us are alone (and that sometimes that's a bad thing).
And on, and on. Like Big Boi's in Rosa Parks, they "stimulate the left and right brain."
As much as I love Jay-Z, he rarely matches his risky lyrics with his surefire hits ("99 Problems" being an awesome exception). To be fair, almost nobody does this. And I get it: artists wanna eat. If you have the talent, and the drive, and the opportunity (in 2010!), to make a hit record, you make that record. If that means giving it a safe, derivative pop lyric, that's what you do. I think just about anybody would.
But Outkast wouldn't, and I miss that.
What are some of your favorite Outkast tracks? Hits? Sleepers? Any reaction to Big Boi's latest?
Many a day has passed,