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Outkast

As someone who didn't initially come to hip-hop for emotional or cultural validation, I'm always excited by rap that moves me in mysterious ways. That never happened much for me with stuff by Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, the two MCs I'd call the form's most recent large-scale heroes/saints/philosophers, mostly because of our different perspectives but also because of the unwillingness I heard in both men's material to fully acknowledge (or embrace) the vulnerability that necessarily exists in a lifestyle that ultimately leads to one's own murder. Both men displayed flashes of it, even posthumously--Shakur with his poetry and painfully earnest cracks at spoken-word, Smalls in the way he looks like a lonely beached whale in the video for "Mo Money Mo Problems"--but, to my ears at least, they never adequately addressed the fragility that is the crucial yang to the gangsta yin.

Now, you can call that a matter of privilege--it's easy to count the number of blows the LAPD handed Rodney King when you're not the one receiving them--and I'll partially buy the idea that 2Pac and B.I.G. were too busy reporting the frontline's goings-on to get dewy-eyed about them. But that doesn't explain how Outkast has managed to do both at the same time, and it doesn't dilute the weird shivers I get every time I hear "Ms. Jackson," the second single from Stankonia, the album the Atlanta-based duo released late last year to across-the-board acclaim. I love the song for a couple of reasons, but the most pertinent one is the way Andre Benjamin, the half of the band who is usually called the ego, stretches out the word "real" in the chorus, when he sings that "I am for real" about never meaning to make the titular mother's daughter cry.

It's a giant sound, full of regret and grief and liability, and it's as believable and genuine as Shakur's hasty, paradoxical "Keep Ya Head Up" wasn't. What really gets me about it though--what moves me in that mysterious way I don't totally understand, and what convinces me that Outkast sees a light Shakur and Smalls only saw half of--is the way the sound is also touched by lust, by the knowledge that this is going to happen again because that's the way these things go. "I'm sorry, Ms. Jackson," Benjamin sings a bunch of times in the song. That's yin and yang at once, and I can't help thinking that it sounds like the arrival of a new hero/saint/philosopher.

 
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