How I Learned To Love The OutKast Reunion

OutKast were my childhood heroes. At first I was worried their upcoming tour meant their values had changed, but I’m realizing that it’s OK to let the people you love surprise you.

OutKast on The Tonight Show, 2002. Kevin Winter / Getty

When OutKast launched a Twitter account and announced they’d reunite this weekend onstage at Coachella following an eight-year hiatus from recording and performing as a duo (or six-year, if you count 2008’s one-off track “Royal Flush”), I felt an unexpected shock of disappointment.

I’d never before doubted a decision by the group — when they parted ways without officially breaking up, I trusted both men when they said it was for the best. In the following years, I enthusiastically cheered on the music Big Boi continued to make on his own, which did a good job of proving that he’d always been a poet as well as a player. As Andre retreated from the public eye, surfacing to appear on rap singles and in razor commercials, together he and Big continued to represent family and friendship, hanging out on Father’s Day and supervising their kids’ summer pool sessions. Either because they didn’t want to or because of label trouble, they did not release new music.

So the reunion felt like blatantly cashing in. They’d barely toured in their prime, and their willingness to do so now plainly exposed that they’re less-than-perfect humans like the rest of us, with kids to send to college and divorce lawyers to pay. Their reunion will celebrate the 20 years they’ve been a group, but it’s also a way to get them back in the spotlight ahead of the release of some kind of greatest hits album.

OutKast accepts the award for Group of the Year at the Source Awards, 1999. Frank Micelotta / Getty

And OutKast’s festival tour does offer some insight into how old acts who’ve tugged at heartstrings now stand to make big bucks. Marginal once upon a time, rap has now become an integral part of the festival circuit’s rock and roll theme park, a hotbed of memories to be made profitable. Festival lineups have been increasingly dominated by ticket-selling nostalgia in recent years: Pulp reunited for a festival tour beginning in 2011; they hit Coachella in 2012, along with a reunited Mazzy Star. Last year’s Coachella bill reunited Blur, The Stone Roses, and The Postal Service. This attention-grabbing strategy isn’t new to rap, either: A 2Pac hologram famously performed alongside Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at 2012’s Coachella; in 2013, hip-hop festival Rock the Bells celebrated its 10th anniversary by “reuniting” holograms of Eazy-E with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Ol’ Dirty Bastard with the Wu-Tang Clan. (Apparently convinced that their new LP won’t sell well to a general audience, Wu-Tang Clan are selling one ridiculous copy of the album for around $5 million.) He never went anywhere, but the dad version of Jay Z makes groundbreaking stadium music and tours as often as the Rolling Stones, charging just as much for tickets.

But as the largest-scale rap nostalgia performance to date, OutKast’s reunion tour underscores how responsible the South was for the genre’s mainstreaming. In 1995, as titans of East and West Coast rap traded escalating barbs and fans were asked to choose sides, Andre silenced booing detractors onstage at the Source Awards by saying, “The South got something to say.” In 1998, The Source awarded OutKast’s album Aquemini with five mics, a perfect score, the first ever given to a Southern rap group; in 2000, a nascent Pitchfork ranked “B.O.B.,” the first single from OutKast’s album Stankonia and probably the highest-BPM radio rap song of all time, the top track of that year. In 2004, the group sold 11 million albums, and became the second rap act to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. No rap artist has taken away that title in the years since, but acts from all around the country have emerged in OutKast’s clay-stained shadow, balancing weird with pop, simultaneously embracing the past and the future, looking toward the sky with one eye and keeping the other down on the street.

So why was I feeling so let down by all of this? I guess because I’d always imagined that before taking a spectacular tour on the road, OutKast would first have gotten together to make new music or do a small hometown show, sharing intimate wisdom of their lives as thirtysomethings with die-hard fans. I didn’t want, I realized, to share OutKast with a generation of flower-crown-wearing young people, who had indiscreetly broadcast their ignorance of the group’s work. This is where I started to feel especially grossed out with myself. When had I become so possessive?

I got into Outkast in Georgia, where I was born in the late ’80s. My big brother — in ‘94, he hit fifth grade while I entered second — was the one who introduced me to them, and when I told him about the reunion this week on the phone, he said, “That makes me feel old.” He’s currently finishing up a doctoral dissertation in history, and he fittingly interprets our mutual affinity for the duo as a result of lucky proximity and timing. OutKast’s first three albums simply coincided with our adolescence, and introductory years as music consumers. “It was just what kids listened to in middle school,” my brother said. “If I had grown up in the Bay Area, I would have listened to other sounds. But I’m happy OutKast was one of the cards I was dealt.”

He’s right: as Georgia tweens in the ’90s, we were in a unique position of advantage to adopt OutKast early. But, if naively, I’ve always thought of my OutKast fandom as a deeply felt choice, not an automatic default. My parents are not from the South; OutKast, whose lyrics viewed Atlanta with equal parts pride and suspicion, made me feel that I belonged there. And, like cool older friends, OutKast encouraged but did not scold. I heard from them, before anyone else, that the internet was worth embracing but its power was something to be weary of. My parents let me stay out late and make my own decisions about college — the group’s conservative suggestion that I should maybe stop smoking so much weed and try as hard as possible to make my work not-demeaning was an effective kick in the butt. Later, at school on the West Coast, I treated OutKast less like an important force in pop music than a book of hymns that I could return to whenever I felt scared or belittled. If I doubted my ability to rely on myself as I entered adulthood, at least there was this assurance: “So congregation, will you turn your text / To the book of OutKast / Chapter two, verse one / The first one that feel me / Jump up and make a joyful noise / You’se OutKasted, meaning / Now you have a choice.”

OutKast at the Grammys, 2004. Frederick M. Brown / Getty

Andre has said that OutKast is eternal, bigger than any of its parts — but this reunion makes it clear that the particular session of OutKast church I attended has ended. It feels like OutKast’s era has become something to memorialize, and that the guys won’t guide me through middle age like they did childhood. I’m not alone in this. “OutKast was a part of my maturing process,” said Rembert Browne, a writer who’s become a friend in New York but grew up in Georgia at the same time as I did. “So it is kind of weird that suddenly they, like, left the school. There’s a part of me that wants them to continue to enlighten me. But then I also acknowledge that maybe what they gave me was enough to get me to where I am.”

Rembert is making the trip to Coachella this weekend. I’ll pay my dues when they make their way to New York in June, but on Friday I’ll watch from my laptop, along with the social media chorus that didn’t exist the last time OutKast was onstage. I think I’ll be jealous, and proud. Because, even if it’s soured my stomach, this Coachella show helps make some more pleasant truths visible too. At the very least, the fact that Dre and Big are game to travel together for the better part of a year confirms that they still consider each other partners as well as friends, even if that partnership is now equal parts business and family-type love. And maybe most important, I think that just watching OutKast stand together onstage this weekend — in clothes less fantastic than their old getups, looking different than they used to, performing old songs — will give people pause in a moment of conflict and excitement. Isn’t that something to be thankful for?

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