Outkast, Forever?

If it ever happened, it was supposed to be an exodus.

The first Outkast show. No matter when or where, we were all going to get there. The thought was, in the most likely scenario, we’d have a few weeks to rearrange our entire lives, scrounge together the necessary funds, make sure everyone who needed to be there would get there, and then get there. Maybe it’d be one show, or perhaps a weekend run. Either way, we’d be there. Because we couldn’t miss it. Because it was the one concert that mattered.

This is how I’d always imagined it would be. But maybe I’d just seen Fade to Black one too many times. Yes, a retirement show and a reunion show exist on opposite ends of the spectrum — but both bring out a specific passion in die-hard fans. And, in turn, should create a similarly die-hard audience. The mere existence of the event should be self-selecting. Having a low to midlevel knowledge of Outkast’s material should be a terrifying prospect, one that would certainly shame you from the front of the stage, if not the event altogether. Because, in a perfect world, no one is just casually there. Because it isn’t a night for discovery. Or standing still. Or mouthing some words. It’s a spectacle for those who know every word. Every ad-lib. Every single moment when you know it’s on the crowd to deliver the lyrics en masse. And a few moments you weren’t expecting, but are still prepared to deliver.

Other acts have gotten that crowd on their way out, or back in. So why not Outkast? Because that’s how it was supposed to be. Because that’s what they deserved. But when Outkast announced the expansion of their reunion to a 40-festival tour, most of the specialness of the Outkast pilgrimage was lost. Many who’d previously sworn for years they’d do anything to see the first show back were now content to wait for the DF Express to come through their backyard. But while the move was generous — as well as a way to make all of the money — that moment was lost. The hope now was that Andre 3000 and Big Boi back together was so large, that triumphant moment would happen at festival after festival, 40 times over.

♦♦♦

With only a week left until the Coachella show, I felt as if I were having four to five conversations a day regarding my excitement level. But each time, the conversation would take a turn to a discussion of my anxiety. Because I’d been to Coachella. Twice before. And while it’s certainly not the terrible place it’s often lazily portrayed as, I knew the stars would have to align for this to come off perfectly. Because between the age of many Coachella attendees, the festival’s status as less than rap-targeted, the timing of a set after 11 hours of people being on their feet, and the unfortunate reality of the VIP section being front and center, things could easily go awry, even for the most talked-about musical event of 2014. I hoped it all would work out. I needed it to work out. But, more than anything, Outkast deserved it to work out.

On Coachella Friday, a day when I distracted myself with the full range of what the festival had to offer, I occasionally forgot what was coming at the end of my night. But at a certain point I had to stop fooling myself. I had to get ready for that ’Kast. I began walking around the grounds, looking for inspiration. Every now and then, amid all the headdresses and cutoffs, I’d spot someone in Braves paraphernalia. Or an Outkast shirt. Or various other pieces of Atlanta gear. Mostly, they were strangers, but on a few occasions, a person I actually knew from Atlanta appeared. Most had little to say about what was to come, because the moment was coming so soon. And everyone was beside themselves. Each encounter was a necessary affirmation that I wasn’t out here alone.

At some point during the afternoon, word got out that Outkast were moving their set up from 11:30 to 11:05, according to Big Boi’s Instagram, on the grounds of “so much music.”

BREAKING NEWS !!! We got so much music we had to change SHOWTIME to 11:05pm RETWEET #outkast20

A photo posted by New Big Boi gear available – (@therealbigboi) on

This was the first real moment of relief. A sign that everything was going to be fine. Because despite all anxieties, we were now in for a two-hour set. They might knock out 40 songs, which meant this wasn’t going to be just the hits for the casual “Ms. Jackson” fan. Which was phenomenal news. What if they play “Jazzy Belle”? And “Git Up, Get Out”? If they do “Crumblin’ Erb,” I can’t be held responsible for my actions. Wait, this means Goodie Mob’s coming out, right? Oh my god, are we about to get all 8:46 of “Liberation”? Hell, at this point, they might just throw on “?” just to see who really knows what’s up.

At this point, nothing else at the festival really mattered. I eventually made my way to the Coachella main stage, Outkast’s stage, a few hours early. Before them, Chromeo and Girl Talk performed. Both sets proved to be perfect for the Coachella crowd — high-energy, dancing — which seemed to be a promising setup for Outkast. As the clock struck 11 p.m., I could barely contain myself. It didn’t feel real. But it was about to happen.

And then 11:05 came. And no Outkast. And then 11:15. And no Outkast. And then 11:25. And no Outkast.

But then, at 11:30 — their original start time — the lights lowered. And while expectations had been just horribly managed, the late-but-still-on-time set was finally starting. And there was Big Boi, dressed like a denim two-piece samurai. And there was Andre, wearing overalls and a Lovett sweatshirt. For the first time in 10 years, Andre and Big were onstage together. As Outkast.

♦♦♦

The highs were so high. Incomprehensibly high. Hearing the opening trumpet salvo from “SpottieOttiedoDaliscious” gave me chills all over. Headland and Delowe street signs emerging, as Big and Dre did “Hootie Hoo,” was something I never thought I’d see. Every single second of “Aquemini.” Big Boi transforming Coachella into an ’06 house party with “Kryptonite.” And Andre doing “Vibrate” and “Prototype,” two of the most overwhelmingly beautiful songs I’ve ever seen at a festival.

There were more subtle moments, too, like watching Andre say, “What up, Big?” and then dance alongside him. Or watching them laugh together. Or seeing them sway back and forth like they had in so many videos. Moments like that — so brief but still suggesting a unified front, instead of just two men coming together to play some old music — was as much of a high as any song. Because you were here for the music, but also here for them. Because there’s no real joy in enjoying this if they aren’t.

That idea, however, of constantly thinking about Outkast became a defining aspect of the concert. Because, while repeatedly getting lost in the music, I also found it near-impossible to not psychoanalyze every single interaction, piece of body language, and perceived annoyance or moment of joy happening onstage. Twenty years in, there’s so much information about Andre and Big Boi’s relationship. But there’s still so much mystery. So it’s hard not to wonder, and then worry, when you see Big Boi, front and center, trying to get the crowd going, while Andre wanders around the stage singing his part, seemingly uninterested. Or Andre repeatedly, and frustratedly, saying he can’t hear himself in the monitors. Or Andre turning his back to the crowd for the majority of “Hey Ya.”

2014 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 1

All you want to do is fix whatever it is that’s bugging him. Or that’s making them seem like not quite a unit. You just want to find a solution to make everything right. At all costs. Because, perhaps unfairly, you want it to be 1998 again. But it’s 2014. And after watching them for 90 minutes up close, you begin to realize it may never be right. That maybe this festival tour is the thing that officially puts the nail in the coffin. You know, if they actually make it through the entire festival tour.

Or half of the festival tour.

Or if Andre even comes out next weekend.

You’re so giddy that Outkast is onstage, right there, but you also want to lay blame somewhere for it not being the show you’ve dreamed of for the past decade. Is Andre the culprit? Is it Outkast as a whole, for making their first stop Coachella and not, say, Atlanta? Or is it the crowd for not showing up to play?

Despite their headlining a huge percentage of the world’s major music festivals this summer, it’s clear after Coachella that the likelihood of Outkast being the main draw for an entire festival crowd is small. Instead of people coming to a three-day festival for Outkast, their reunion becomes something everyone can casually walk over and see, another item on the checklist of all the other things they’re doing that weekend. With the exception of perhaps only Toronto’s OVO Fest, New York’s Governors Ball, and whatever show they (hopefully) end up doing in Atlanta, the casual fans will undoubtedly outnumber the longtime Outkast fans. That’s just how it’s going to be, which is a sad byproduct of doing it at this scale.

Your gut may be to get angry at fans who don’t “get it.” Trust me, I felt like that throughout the entire concert. Because the inaugural Outkast reunion concert is an unsettling place to feel alienated for knowing all the words and having visible emotions tied to every one of those words.

But you can’t force people to know things. You can wish, perhaps, that they weren’t there. That they had the wherewithal to stay in the back and let the fans dominate the front, to be most visible and encouraging to Andre and Big. But that’s not how things work. Still, I had to battle through the disappointment and the alienation. I had to make this about myself and Outkast. It wasn’t easy, and occasionally I’d slip and feel the desire to punt those gazing at the stage as if they were watching the Outkast reunion movie, instead of participating in the Outkast reunion show. But I had to deal.

If you want to point a finger, why not blame the decision to do 40 festivals? Instead of, say, 40 shows? Or, while uncomfortable to admit, there’s also the reality of blaming Andre and Big. Because, based on what I know from a lengthy history of watching them, they were not entertainers on Friday night. What I saw were classic artists. Legends who knew they deserved it all, but perhaps thought the adoration should come in lieu of their being entertainers.

They were entertaining, but it’s all relative to knowing how good they can be. How beautifully they can play off each other. How rambunctious they can be. And, ultimately, how peerless they once were onstage. But things change.

Leaving the show — which ended abruptly, before Killer Mike could perform “The Whole World” alongside them — I could not ignore a feeling of underwhelmedness. A feeling that quickly became an internal monologue reminding myself I needed to appreciate what had just happened — Outkast onstage together — which then produced a new feeling, one in which I tried to block out everything I could have done without and just internalized the highs. I completely disregarded that 10 full minutes of my very special, long-awaited Outkast reunion were dedicated to a Future album plug, which — as much as I love Future and the Falcons Deion Sanders jersey he wore — never should have happened. But, ultimately, it was OK, because I didn’t have to think about that anymore. Because I had my highs, and they were enough, for now.

♦♦♦

2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival - Day 2

The following night, in the same time slot, albeit on a smaller stage, Nas performed. The concert was a trim 14 songs. Only 12 were his — the other two came courtesy of his special guest, former nemesis/now old-man comrade Jay Z. The first nine songs Nas performed were from his 1994 classic album, Illmatic. And he played them in order. The last three songs were “Made You Look,” “Hate Me Now” (with a cameo from Puff Daddy), and his closer, “One Mic.”

That was it. Instead of being grumpy, perhaps, that his 20th anniversary wasn’t being given the same attention as the Outkast reunion (which also represents their 20th anniversary), Nas was an extremely grateful, humble performer. He referenced how old he was on numerous occasions, reminding the crowd that Illmatic had come out on cassette tape. (“Do you know how back that is?”) But in this, amid this young crowd, somehow he didn’t feel dated. Or washed up. Nas seemed important.

And to his credit, he didn’t give the crowd the opportunity to waver on him. Here he was, resting on an album that came out before many people in the crowd were born, acknowledging that reality, and instead of shaming them for not being up on it, or playing down to his crowd, he forced them to get into it. Because for an hour, he was an entertainer. He forced his greatness upon them. And the crowd responded.

“Respect is mandatory, end of the story, go fly a kite.”
—Andre 3000, “Mighty O”

Nas, like Outkast, deserves all of the praise. Both acts’ influence is etched in stone. And they have earned the right to demand respect without having to ask for it. But the way Outkast and Nas went about their sets felt very different. My gut was to blame the crowd for not giving Andre and Big Boi something to get excited by, this lack of excitement thus negatively affecting the energy level of the show. But that became a harder case to make after seeing what Nas did to his crowd, with similar factors working against him.

It was uncomfortable to gauge my post-show emotions for the first two nights. To reconcile that I was more content after Nas, someone I’d seen run through Illmatic only two months earlier, than after watching my favorite group of all time perform, one I hadn’t seen live since 1999. It didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t trick myself into thinking otherwise. I later realized I could be both grateful for the experience and sad that it didn’t give me the same level of elation I’d planned for. And I could also understand that in this current Outkast festival arrangement, this was what I’d signed up for. Placing fault is worthless at this point, because it was either this or nothing. And I want more than nothing.

But, if I want, there will be other chances. Perhaps I need to do a tour of my own, to see Outkast with my scattering of friends who love them and are eagerly waiting on them. Because what I got certainly wasn’t enough. I just hope, when the tour’s all over, we’re happy it all went down this way. And more important than our own happinesses, that childhood friends Andre and Antwan are happy, too. Because we’ve gotten all the music we need from them. The final step should be that they’re happy. I just hope this tour is a baby step forward, not the final leap back.

Filed Under: Music, Outkast, Coachella, Reunions, atlanta, Future, Andre 3000, Big Boi, Rembert Browne, Nas, illmatic

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

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