Reunited And It Feels A Little Awkward: OutKast At Coachella

Apr 14, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2015 9:12 am

On Friday, after a 10-year absence from the stage, OutKast performed at Coachella. The duo's set was streamed live on YouTube and so, in addition to the thousands of tired, dusty festivalgoers who had journeyed and paid good money to see them in person, those who stayed home got to see it, too. What everybody witnessed provoked 90,000 tweets in 24 hours, and by Monday afternoon the recorded set had been viewed more than 1.7 million times.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi have, as a duo, sold 25 million records. The last time they put one out, though, was in 2006. The festival tour they've announced so far this year (18 dates confirmed, 40 promised) is supposed to be a victory lap — they're calling it a thank you to their fans. But the reception of their performance is casting some doubt on how joyful a reunion the next few months will be.

OutKast is beloved for undeniably catchy triumphs of songwriting like "Hey Ya" and "Ms. Jackson," but they're also revered by people who firmly believe in the transformative capabilities of hip-hop. For 20 years, beginning with 1994's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and through their separate careers, they've pushed the envelope, spoken about things that matter, turned out the dance floor and remained their own men.

Both those audiences went to Coachella this weekend, although the casual fans crushingly outnumbered the hardcore. We can all agree that the sequence of events was as follows: blinding flashes of light, a "hootie hoo" that could only herald one group, a brief glimpse of a giant mesh cube containing two men that really weren't supposed to be there, darkness, then spotlight lock on what, yes, was actually happening: Big Boi and Andre, overalls and sportswear. The crowd flipped out. In the field, where I was, a group of two dozen high school seniors from San Clemente leapt up en masse and sprinted 30 feet forward. I cried.

And then, as OutKast dropped into their opening song's third chorus, I looked around. An outdoor festival is quieter than you would think. Depending on where you are in relation to the speakers, you can talk to your friends in a normal speaking voice even at the height of a set. You can tell if the people around you know the words. From where I was, the distance from the stage you would have been if you had left The Replacements, or Flume, or Zedd when their sets were done and hustled over, the people did not know the words to "Bombs Over Baghdad."

That song is hype, but it's not actually that easy to dance to. And while the hook is indelible, those lines are not for the amateur rapper. They are not just thoughts at a thousand miles an hour, they are thoughts of import, thoughts that weigh heavy. It isn't fair to expect any group of 100 people to know even half the words to that song. At a big show like this, you want to be around people on your level of enthusiasm. I went looking.

I spent the rest of the set moving through the crowd, forward as far as I could press, over to the right through a pack of bros thoroughly impressed by the two-stepping they could see on the big screens, around quite a few couples kind of trying to freak like it was still '94 and was eventually stopped in my tracks by "Prototype," because I had to text 18 people.

"Prototype" is on the same album as "Hey Ya." The same album that has shipped more than five million units since it was released ten years ago, when the kids from San Clemente were eight. The same double album that played like two solo albums that OutKast told us didn't mean they were breaking up. It is fair to say that "Prototype" isn't a rap song, or that it isn't only a rap song. It is certainly not a pop song.

It is crucial, it is gorgeous, and everybody I texted responded immediately in all caps and four-letter words. I stopped texting because I realized people were streaming away from the stage. I also realized that all these thousands of people were hurting. They weren't getting what they thought they were going to get. What they had shelled out to see. They were real tired and a little cold, and they couldn't dance enough to warm up — not to this song. They were trying to remember where they parked their car.

And onstage, it looked like Andre was trying to remember why he agreed to this. He'd been asking to get his monitors turned up — which you'll recognize as the kiss of death if you go to enough shows. He asked us if we were still alive. The banter was cold, Big Boi delivering the traditional exhortations for crowd participation after every limp note from Andre. It was painfully obvious that this was only ever going to end one way, with "Hey Ya," the tiny slice of OutKast's catalog that has, for most of the people who will be in front of Andre and Big Boi all summer, eclipsed all the other ambiguous, delirious, human songs.

Every song they performed reignited my memories of all of them. They did "Skew It on the Bar-B" and my first thought was the cassette tape I used to stare at, locked in my bedroom, before I got my driver's license. "How did they get George Clinton?" I would think. They did "Spottieottie" and I saw smiles on the faces of my ex and his friends, who used to busk in Times Square and would drop into that song (just trombone, bass, snare) when I walked up, half because it was my favorite, half as a middle finger to the tourists. Being that happy at the expense of the people who made those songs hurt my heart. The feelings were right, but the setting was wrong.

I think we all get why they're doing this. Festivals mean guaranteed money, not percentages like a club tour. The 20th anniversary of any act is a glaring opportunity for a cash grab. That mesh cube can't be cheap. For better or worse, OutKast's debut album is not being monetized the way, say, Illmatic, released the same month in '94, is. Southernplayalistic is not being reissued. A documentary about the making of it is not being screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Jay Z and Puffy came out for Nas' set on Saturday, not OutKast's on Friday. I spoke to two separate people today who said that OutKast gives them life. But they don't give life to everybody. We think of them as central to hip-hop, but they came in from way left field. Nas never had a smash on the level of "Hey Ya." He also didn't wear overalls on stage at Coachella.

I think we all feel like this is goodbye. I think we all respect OutKast's right and need to be paid for their work and understand that festival dates work for them, even though they're tough on us, after the travel and the sunburn and cost of entry. What started this weekend and will unfold over the summer makes sense financially. But at what cost? We'll know by August.

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It's concert season, and one of the biggest shows in pop and rock kicked off this past weekend in California. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is where music royalty shines. And it's not unusual to see big reunions. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Pixies, and Rage Against the Machine come to mind. This year, it was OutKast.


CORNISH: The rap duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi has won six Grammys and sold more than 25 million records, and they haven't performed together in a decade so their return was supposed to be a victory lap of sorts. But the reception at the show is casting some doubt on that plan.

NPR's Frannie Kelley was there and joins us now to talk more about it. And Frannie, this song - "Hey Ya!" - was so huge when it came out on their album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. That was almost 10 years ago. But give us a sense of who they are; who's OutKast?

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: OutKast - they make these songs like "Hey Ya!" that almost everybody loves. I mean, how could you hate that song? But they're also revered by people who take hip-hop extremely seriously and within that world, they push the envelope. They put Southern rap on the map - and they are kind of weird.

CORNISH: And this was the first of a series of summer festival performances. OutKast was billing this as a big thank-you tour for fans. They come out on stage, what happens?

KELLEY: So what we see, after a huge flash of light, is this enormous mesh cube that contains these two men that we haven't seen together in more than a decade, and the crowd flips out.


CORNISH: So what happens after that first rush? I mean, "Bombs Over Baghdad" was a big song when it came out.

KELLEY: Yeah, it was big, but it's not as danceable, as catchy as "Hey Ya!" And after everybody sort of rushed the stage, they just stood there. I saw a lot of folded arms; a lot of people sort of witnessing rather than celebrating.

CORNISH: So is this because people just want to hear the hits at a festival show like this, or does this have to do with the demographics?

KELLEY: Yeah, I think it goes back to the two audiences that OutKast now has. They have these enormous hits that have, in essence, overshadowed the vast body of their work. And so they have to play these songs to the people that go to festivals, you know, to be with their friends; and then to also appeal to their followers who've been with them for two decades.

CORNISH: So Frannie, help us understand the economics of this. What does a group, a band like OutKast - trying to turn into a legacy act - what do they have to do to make the money work?

KELLEY: Well, they're playing festivals most likely because festivals are guaranteed money. And also, this is their 20th anniversary. For most acts, that's the chance to make a big cash grab before you walk off into the sunset, and they need that cash to build that huge mesh cube and take everybody on the road. So they're doing this for financial reasons, but the question is, at what cost to their relationship with each other, their relationship with their fans, and their relationship to their legacy?

Do they have control over it anymore, or will we now remember them with a slight sour taste in our mouth? I don't think so, but we're gonna have to watch what happens for the rest of the summer.

CORNISH: That's Frannie Kelley, of NPR Music. Frannie, thanks so much for talking with us.

KELLEY: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.