I didn’t think I was going to get to see Outkast.
My favorite group of all time was reuniting for a major tour. I’d never seen them live. I never would.
When they played Coachella, I didn’t want to buy a ticket. I’d just started a new job, I didn’t want to ask for time off, and a scheduling snafu meant that my P&P partner in crime Joyce was going to have to make the most of the press passes she had acquired alone.
I watched the live broadcast from weekend one and felt justified. Heartbroken, but justified. Maybe I didn’t need to be there. Maybe it was best that my icons remained icons in my mind and on Spotify.
I didn’t want to book a flight home from Los Angeles to New York for Governors Ball. I didn’t want to try to catch them in another city on the tour.
By the end of summer, I’d resigned myself to the fact that I’d likely never see my favorite artists (besides Stevie Wonder) perform. I’d become jaded enough in the last few years to make the necessary logical leaps to muffle my disappointment.
“I’m going to be in Atlanta from the 25th to the 28th—you should try to come down.”
Work called. I had to book a last minute trip to Atlanta, an opportunity I relished. Atlanta is a city of good friends, great memories, great culture, and meals I savor and regret almost immediately after. I could never live there, but I hate leaving.
I realized my trip happened to coincide with Outkast’s #ATLast concert—the crown jewel of an occasionally rocky but, as it ran, seemingly successful reunion tour. Withholding names to protect the not-so-innocent, I found a last minute way in.
Preservation of the past. That’s the fossilized heart of a reunion tour.
We want the Outkast we grew up with–whether we were 18 when “Player’s Ball” came out and grew as the duo did, or, like me, we were 11 year olds hearing “Bombs Over Baghdad” for the first time, an earth-shattering window into the music of one of the most vital, idiosyncratic groups in rap history and likely in the canon of popular music at large.
Stankonia introduced me to Outkast, but I quickly became an acolyte at the altar of André and Big Boi. I bought their back catalog. I used Kazaa, SoulSeek, and, a few years later, the nascent blogosphere to scour the Internet for any existing rarities, remixes, and features (and there aren’t many—not nearly enough for a ravenous listener). I dug into Organized Noize’s catalog. And Goodie Mob’s. I hunted down releases by even the most obscure Dungeon Family affiliates in hopes of finding Andre and Big Boi verses I’d somehow missed (discovering some of my favorite overlooked gems that had nothing to do with the duo in the process). I bought shirts.
I learned about Atlanta through the lens of the Atliens, slang and geography filtered into a primitive mental map. I was shocked when I met Atlantans as a 16-year-old, even more so when I went to visit the city a year later. They didn’t know about Headland and Delowe or Bankhead, didn’t know about the S.W.A.T.S., had never been to College Park or Decatur or the Omni, and didn’t know who Wayne Williams was. Outkast’s coded language made Atlanta flesh and blood and concrete—vibrant, dangerous, and thrilling, a melting pot of sounds, ideas, and cultures at once real and mythical.
Present day Atlanta feels like deliverance on the implicit prophecy of Outkast’s run from 1994 to 2003.
Fast forward 20 years from the duo’s inception and a decade from their commercial peak on the heels of diamond-selling double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—the masterpiece swan song that essentially splintered the group until their reunion (2006’s Idlewild counts as an album in the Outkast catalog, but it is such a fragmented collection that it feels incorrect to classify it as part of the group’s canon, extreme bright spots aside).
Present day Atlanta feels like deliverance on the implicit prophecy of Outkast’s run from 1994 to 2003. Artists like Future (a Dungeon Family alum), Migos, Rich Homie Quan, K Camp, Que, Ca$h Out, and Rae Sremmurd light up the clubs, creating one sort of buzz while genre-bending artists like Raury, Rome Fortune, and ILoveMakonnen occupy another that often has the power to spill over and win audiences beyond the city limits. OG Maco, Key!, Father, and Two-9 split the difference. Young Thug makes a mockery of boundaries and tradition while scoring unorthodox, often unintelligible hit records. Producers like Metro Boomin, Childish Major, Sonny Digital, London on the Track, Dun Deal, TM-88, and kingpin Mike Will (and his cadre of collaborators) inspire imitators across the country while pioneering fascinating new sounds that define club and radio playlists.
Atlanta is still a city of lanes, but the younger generation intermingles. Even when artists aren’t working together, they’re aware and generally respectful.
Amidst the sharks and labels looking to capitalize on the city with the juice, there exists a unique sense of collectivism. Above all other groups and elder statesmen (and there are many still active: T.I., 2 Chainz, Killer Mike), Outkast remain Atlanta’s ambassadors, the first to break nationally and sell millions of records, the first to blur boundaries between regions and invite New Yorkers like Raekwon into their circle, the first to show that not only did the south have something to say, it also had myriad ways to say it.
An Outkast reunion show in Atlanta is a city holiday. I arrived at Centennial Olympic Park on Saturday at 3pm expecting a mostly empty field. By 4pm, thousands of people had already streamed in. By the time opener Raury (who DJ Greg Street affectionately referred to as “André 2000”) went on at 5pm, some 10,000 people packed the park. The near 20,000-person crowd was almost fully in attendance by the time Kid Cudi grudgingly took the stage at 7:30pm.
The line-up represented Outkast’s lineage in its diversity, ambition, and occasional audience confusion—a fitting appetizer if perhaps one that called for more involved digestion.
The crowd—typically a bit older, racially diverse, though, like the city itself, largely black—was polite to openers Raury, Childish Gambino, and Kid Cudi. Some fans (younger ones, mostly) were feverish from start to finish. With due respect to the supporting acts, each had assumed the impossible mission of setting the stage for one of rap’s most revered groups. It would be a tall task even for local favorites, let alone a collection of partially native talent that skews more alternative than most of the audience might have expected or desired. The crowd wasn’t always responsive to the trio’s music, but the line-up represented Outkast’s lineage in its diversity, ambition, and occasional audience confusion—a fitting appetizer if perhaps one that called for more involved digestion.
At 9PM, after 6 hours (or, in my case, roughly 15 years) of waiting, Outkast took the stage to “B.O.B.” I almost cried.
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. Their pacing was sharp. Their rapport was loose and joyful. Their energy was high and unwavering, bringing pitch-perfect life to a diverse catalog. And what a catalog it remains: Their music is incredible and fresh, songs like “Ms. Jackson,” “Aquemini,” “Roses,” “Elevators,” and the aforementioned “B.O.B.” reminding listeners that the duo wasn’t simply ahead of the curve, they traveled on entirely separate trajectory from the rest of rap. They played the hits, but they also dusted off a few deep cuts for the true believers.
The imbalance that marred their return at Coachella had been replaced by the unique harmony that made them an effective duo in the first place.
Superfandom in a cynical age—in a fragmented, noisy time when it’s more fun and traffic-driving to strip your idols than celebrate them—is a losing proposition. The jaded and detached decry anything that reeks of real passion, an attitude set up as an often necessary buffer for an illogical, processed, and painful world.
True greats know how to dig down and pull out a performance when it matters.
On Saturday, September 27th, there was no room for protective irony. No need for the bulwark of cynicism. My musical heroes were on stage and killing it, reminding fans that true greats know how to dig down and pull out a performance when it matters. Home court. In the face of doubt. After 20 years of trailblazing successes and Cold War turmoil. The past—save for its place as a song bank—became irrelevant. Alive before me, André 3000 and Big Boi owned the stage and looking like they loved each moment.
There is, of course, a level of irrational joy to a show like this one—I’m not even sure it was that good. It was certainly good enough to redeem the group, to preserve them in memory and lift my spirits. It was a love letter to obsessives and neophytes alike, to those who only knew the hits and those who hoped they’d play “Liberation” (they didn’t, though they did deliver a slew of well-chosen deep cuts)—the setlist a perhaps incidental representation of the inclusiveness Outkast’s catalog fosters. If this is Outkast’s curtain call, it was the perfect amber to encase their memory.