OutKast, Hey Ya! (2003)

OutkastHeyYa

Artist: OutKast
Title: Hey Ya!
Description: single; track, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Label: LaFace/Arista
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

1, 2, 3, uh!

In his knockout book Uncommon People, the sage-like David Hepworth notes that “the age of the rock star” – his chosen subject – “was coterminous with rock and roll, which in spite of all the promises made in some memorable songs proved to be as finite as the era of ragtime or big bands.” His introduction concludes, “The rock era is over. We now live in a hip hop world.”

Cue:

My baby don’t mess around
Because she loves me so
And this I know for sho’

It is not with disdain or regret that David reports the death of rock, nor the ascension of hip hop, merely acknowledgement of fact. The subculture that grew exponentially into a culture, or arguably the culture, was founded on the art of rapping, the overhaul of the traditional modus of the vinyl turntable, pre-digital sampling and a deep base of African-American heritage that would drive what started at local block parties into the mainstream, international arena.

Don’t try to fight the feeling

The centre of gravity initially bounced from East coast to West, ricocheting between the South Bronx and South Central fairly constantly throughout the 80s, with gangsta rap eventually eclipsing New York and forging a new orthodoxy for the 90s based on questionable male sexual politics, the entrepreneurial and criminal accumulation of money, and fame and fortune for their own sake. As the industry craned for new sounds, new colours, new stars, the belated emergence of Southern hip-hop was inevitable, and two teens named André Benjamin (“Andre 3000”) and Antwan Patton (“Big Boi”) emerged from a nascent scene in Atlanta, Georgia, funkier and more free-wheeling than the West Coast shoot-’em-up style and with an attractive drawl. They went platinum before I’d ever heard of them, and I make no apology for that. I got them in the year 2000, like most people did.

Thank God for Mom and Dad
For sticking two together

Stankonia was neither OutKast’s debut album, nor their second, nor their third, but their fourth. Full marks if you were already following their origins story and could see it coming. I did not. I heard the backmasked, social-realist, Wagner’s Wedding March-sampling Ms Jackson in October 2000 when it lolloped to number one in the US and two in the UK. Having left Q magazine, I may well have paid good money for the parent LP and I was sold on all 73 minutes of its contents: melodic, meaningful, not always languid, packed with diversity, hard to tear your ears from, and quadruple-platinum, Grammy-trousering successful.

Having invested in their own studio after album #3, the heat was off and they’d allowed themselves a year to make Stankonia. They claim to have deliberately stopped listening to hip hop in lieu of listening to rock’n’roll, soul and funk. It shows. Shame about the blunts and the loose women (“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha we love deez hoez”), but enlightenment does not descend overnight.

And the pair hadn’t peaked. Three years later, they returned with a double album, and not just a double album but two solo albums, one each. Speakerboxx is Big Boi, whose modus operandi is to jam at home in LA for just under an hour; The Love Below is Benjamin and runs for 78 minutes. Both feature guest stars (Big Boi ropes in Killer Mike, Ludacris, Jay-Z and Cee-Lo; Benjamin has Norah Jones and Kelis) and – so much for the trial separation – each appears on the other’s disc. This is nothing new. Nary a single solo record by any ex-Beatle or member of the Stones comes without the casual appearance of a fellow ex-Beatle or member of the Stones, or both.

The commercial and creative crux of not just this album but the duo’s entire glittering career is Hey Ya! The ninth track on The Love Below, it thus by rights belongs to Benjamin. He recorded and self-produced it in Atlanta and Los Angeles, apparently free-forming the lyrics, which read like the schizophrenic breakdown of a man who cannot decide how to play the relationship he’s in. From one line to the next he flips between thinking he’s got it, then fearing that he hasn’t: “Oh, you think you’ve got it, but ‘got it’ just don’t get it at all.” He and his partner are “together … but separate’s always better.”

No wonder he gives up and gives in to a two-word assessment.

Hey ya! Hey ya!

Benjamin, fleet of tongue, gets this poem of faith and doubt across like the actor he always wanted to be. You can almost imagine his acting coach encouraging him to dig deep: “So why oh why oh, why oh why oh are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”

In case this is all sounding solipsistic, remember it’s laid across a thumping, hand-clapping, squelching-synth pop masterpiece that’s so confident in its authority it runs on a strummed acoustic guitar and sh-shakes it like a Polaroid picture. The author acknowledges this: “Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.” Correct. Hey Ya! is one of the greatest pop songs of the 21st century, borne of every bloodline and bassline that merged to put black history back at the front of the book. But Benjamin has to be playing it for parody when he claims he “don’t want to meet your daddy”, but wants you in his Caddy, and neither does he want to “meet your mama”, he just wants to “make you cumma,” a line about the female orgasm being played on a mainstream radio station as we speak somewhere in the world, right now.

Having placed this mighty oak of a single into context – and the single’s genre-bending appearance on Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts tells us all we need to know about its crossover appeal – I have to say I never really followed up with OutKast. OutKast did, with an equivalent hit from Speakerboxx, The Way You Move, which also went to number one and in fact neatly replaced Hey Ya!, and Roses, which I never liked (“roses really smell like boo boo”), but united the pair as it’s the only track on The Love Below that also features Big Boi. I know, sweet. Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbour!

OutKast split after a failed period gangster movie and soundtrack proved unable to generate any sugar (and was, ironically, set in the era of ragtime and big bands), although Benjamin does seem to be carving out an acting career after valiantly playing Hendrix in a biopic with no rights to his music.

In a hip-hop world, the pre-hip-hop artists are played by hip-hop artists.

 

Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z), Crazy In Love (2003)

Beyonce_-_Crazy_In_Love_single_cover

Artist: Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z)
Title: Crazy In Love
Description: single; album track, Dangerously In Love
Label: Columbia
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

We all know that lightning-bolt feeling of satisfaction when, by hook or by crook – and it was way more of an achievement in the latter 20th century – you identify the original source of a sample used in a modern record. Eureka! It is the musical equivalent of Poirot’s reveal in the drawing room. Whodunit, or who-originally-dunit, has been the sport of nerds since the late 80s, when a combination of available technology and a legal Wild West combined to create a plundertopia. Even when audio-recycling was reigned in by m’learned friends and samples had to be – yawn! – cleared and credited, with all the residual paperwork entailed by this musical-industrial complex, the creativity bubbled on.

In 1994, I let light in upon the magic of Portishead’s haunting Sour Times in the old-school way. I actually had a Lalo Schifrin Mission: Impossible album (thanks to a soundtrack label’s mailing list), which contained Danube Incident, a jangling, melancholy theme he’d composed for the show, and once I’d heard it, I reached for my copy of Dummy. Eureka! Ingeniously lifted by Geoff Barrow, it forms the basis of Sour Times. Just as The Last Time by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra formed the basis of Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve a couple of years later. Having only applied to use a five-note sample, this proved actionable. But there’s no denying the drama and the brilliance of the pilfer. Which brings us to Crazy In Love.

Like millions of others, I was knocked sideways by the stomping pizzazz of this, Beyoncé’s debut single as a solo artist. The rattlingly funky beat, those blaring horns – what a fanfare it was for this newly-minted superstar, and so perfectly calibrated for her tottering, arse-shaking warrior dance. The fact that both the beat and the horns are cut and pasted from the Chi-Lites’ 1970 single Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) diminishes the song’s pop alchemy not one jot. Certainly, it was a shock when I first discovered how much of the original had been borrowed, and how little producers Knowles and Rich Harrison had adapted it, but once you’re over that, you can go back to shimmying and trying to replicate Beyoncé’s vocal aerobics.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no-no

Even that‘s tricky to sing along to. Unless you’re actually doing karaoke, it’s fine to skip the verse and belt out the chorus, but you’ll need to do some serious breathing exercises first. And some treadmill. She obviously has.

Got me looking so crazy right now, your love’s
Got me looking so crazy right now (in love)
Got me looking so crazy right now, your touch
Got me looking so crazy right now (your touch)
Got me hoping you’ll page me right now, your kiss
Got me hoping you’ll save me right now
Looking so crazy in love’s,
Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love

It feels so good when you nail it. It doesn’t mean a heck of a lot, but she sells it so hard. Both your love and your touch haven’t actually got her crazy right now, they’ve got her looking crazy. Which is as much of an imposition, if poise is your thing. Additionally, your touch has got her hoping you’ll page her right now, which is a) technologically quaint, and b) borderline submissive. Why doesn’t she page you? Because she looks crazy? She also wants saving, like some fallen woman, and all because of your kiss. Good lord, has she been sectioned? It’s torrid stuff. And not for one moment do you disbelieve it.

Beyoncé and Mr Carter (her now-husband Jay-Z) have remodelled themselves as an alpha power couple, and it can cloy. From an Independent Woman to Mrs Carter? Really? But herein, they’re in harmony.

He’s there from the start – unless, like Smooth Radio used to, you actually favour the Jay-Z-free version – bigging her up (“ya girl, Bee”), and it really does feel like “history in the making.” Duets, we’ve had a few. But the dynamic here is so much more, well, dynamic. She’s in charge, but he gets a verse. And they complement each other: she the operatic street diva, he the cunning linguist, banging on (“y’all know when the flow is loco, Young B and the R-O-C, uh oh, Ol’ G, big homie, the one and only, stick bony, but the pocket is fat like Tony, Soprano”). It’s a bold, redolent explosion in the English language factory.

Back to the verse, and Beyoncé’s back on the tiller, explaining that she’s not herself lately (“I’m foolish, I don’t do this“) and that your love’s got the best of her (“And baby you’re making a fool of me”). You got her “sprung”, which I like, and she “don’t care who sees.” Beyoncé’s strapping voice ascends like a lark and diffuses like an exploded pyrotechnic.

None of this was on the Chi-Lites.

I made the fatal mistake of buying the parent LP, Dangerously In Love, off the back of my love for Crazy In Love and discovered, to my cost, that it followed the pattern of all R&B albums in the modern style: three good songs, all of them singles, one with Missy Elliott, and the other tracks. It’s the way. Even – to pluck a more recent example – Pharrell Williams’ GIRL, which is in the same vertiginous league, has filler. None of it’s bad, but not all of it is Happy. This need not detain us. Outside of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, and Stevie Wonder’s six-LP rally from Where I’m Coming From, even Motown never really traded in classic albums, and maybe that’s where this neo-R&B orthodoxy grew from. (Both Marvin and Stevie had to wrest control to make their respective bids for long-playing freedom in an era when recording artists were like actors under the Hollywood studio system.)

Beyoncé used the string sequence from Bitter Sweet Symphony on her 2013 world tour. Eureka!