“If you don’t know us by now,” Andre 3000 yells, from underneath his alien sunglasses and silver wig as his horn section vamps behind him, “You probably never will.”
In that moment, the crowd comes unglued. Well, more unglued than they had been during the five songs that opened Outkast’s sold-out show at the Marcus Amphitheater at Summerfest this weekend. Outkast had taken the stage 25 minutes earlier without much of a word, before launching right into the still 30-years-ahead-of-its-time “B.O.B.,” a rendition that felt like it had the capacity to send the Marcus rocketing into Lake Michigan. In that moment of Andre 3000 and Big Boi finally acknowledging the crowd, all trepidation, all worry that this reunion tour was meant as a final cash grab before Outkast retired to somewhere in the Atlanta suburbs (or in Andre’s case, a condo on Mars), was obliterated. To say that Outkast’s set at Summerfest was perfect would be an understatement; it’d be hard to imagine someone leaving Marcus Amphitheater feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth. I’m already sure I won’t see a live show that touches it in 2014.
The stats are well known. Outkast sold 25 million records between 1994 and 2006, and they reunited this year, after not working together since 2006, under the auspices of their 20th anniversary of their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. What’s more, this year also marks the 10th anniversary since they last played a show together; they more or less stopped functioning as a touring concern once their promotional duties behind Speakerboxxx/The Love Below were over.
The irony of the Outkast live reunion tour is that Outkast were known more for making flawless studio albums than they ever were for being a dynamite live act. The infrastructure that allows rappers to tour theaters around America was still in its early, reticent days when they were at their peak, and they made most of their duckets recording increasingly popular studio albums. As such, Big Boi—who’s been a road horse since he started releasing solo albums in 2010—is the more road tested of the two, better at pandering to a crowd, better at just staying in the pocket and giving the crowd perfectly recreated versions of their favorite songs. The spotlight comes easier to Andre, though, even if he’s spent the last few years professionally shaving. He wore a body suit that said “SLOPPY WET POSEIDON” and had a tag that said “Sold,” which is a statement that probably only makes sense to him, and rolled around on speakers, cracked meta jokes, and walked around with trumpets between his legs.
Early reports of the tour held that Dre and Big were flat and rusty, and that the festival audiences they were playing to weren’t responding to anything other than “Hey Ya.” I’m not here to claim that “Hey Ya” didn’t get the biggest response and sing-along of the night at Summerfest, but I’m also not going to pass judgment on people reacting to what is undeniably Outkast’s biggest song. As soon as that song went out to radio, Outkast were no longer just the titans of popular rap: they became a pop group for everyone, and “Hey Ya” is now a song that we can all expect to hear at every wedding until we die. And ultimately, without the mega smash success of “Hey Ya,” we probably don’t get an Outkast festival tour in 2014.
If there’s a claim of cash-in nostalgia to be made it’s there. Instead of booking a tour that would require them to hit the country via bus, they booked a tour of one-off festival dates without the ancillary expenses and grind that come with touring: sound systems, merch guys, paying for the entire Dungeon Family to drive the bus, and then submitting themselves to local press to drum up ticket sales at every stop. (They’ve done no press at all, in fact.) And therefore, they’re going to end up playing for a lot of people who are at festivals to hear Imagine Dragons instead of them, and therefore, might not respond to shit off ATLiens.
That wasn’t a concern at Summerfest—it was one of the few shows on Outkast’s docket that didn’t require buying a general admission ticket, meaning it was possible to show up and hear Outkast and only Outkast. The early criticisms of loose sets and a lack of crowd reaction clearly weighed on Three Stacks and Big; they constantly took the temperature of the crowd, even though everyone was on board the whole time. The crowd sang along to “Crumblin’ Erb,” “Gasoline Dreams,” “Ghetto Musick,” “Spottieottiedopaliscious,” and “Hootie Hoo,” elevating deep cut tracks to hit single status.
Since its announcement—and its subsequent expansion to include an Outkast-curated festival, #ATLast, in Atlanta—the tour has felt like a “Jesus, enough already, we’ll tour” type of deal, instead of a “Let’s get out and beat a dead horse” situation. There’s only so many times you can be asked “When are you going to get back with Big Boi?” while you’re promoting Semi-Pro before you pick up the phone, you know? It’s long felt like Outkast’s audience—their fans, the music media—needed the Outkast reunion more than Outkast has ever needed to reunite. It’s not like they were at home on the couch, or weren’t making music. Big has had two great solo albums, and Three Stacks has become the master of the obtuse guest verse, co-starring on Rick Ross albums, Rich Boy remixes, Frank Ocean deep cuts, and on the best song Young Jeezy’s done since his first album. So in a way, it’s commendable that Outkast took the early heat about their set and have built it up to the juggernaut it was at Summerfest; no dead moments, they just shut up and played all the hits.
There’s been a lot of calls for Outkast to make new music after this tour gets done—the announcement of #ATLast went viral as a potential new album before it was announced as a festival—but that’s ignoring the Gorilla Zoe in the room: Outkast are one of the few rap groups that never made a bad album, and maybe said everything they had to say. They proved the South had something to say (Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzick), established that Southern rap had ambitious artistic motives (ATLiens), delivered back-to-back Five Mic classics (Aquemini and Stankonia), and did a break-up album without breaking up (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below). They even got to do a cash-in movie soundtrack for a half-baked movie project that sorta bombed (Idlewild). The only logical thing left for them to do is to feather their caps with $20 million each before they close the books. And honestly, their last officially released joint project is the flawless “Int’l Player’s Anthem,” which is as good an epitaph for a recorded partnership that exists.
Outkast made time near the end of their set to do that one in honor of Pimp C, who died after the song came out in 2007. On record, that song (and its classic video) is like spending time in a church that has an incredible band; live, it was the same. The crowd swayed and sang like it caught the holy ghost. The set concluded with “The Whole World,” a song from Outkast’s greatest hits album in 2001, released by their label to capitalize on what seemed like Outkast’s one shot at pop zeitgeist stardom: “Miss Jackson” and Stankonia (which of course was performed on Sunday, too). 13 years later, it served as the exclamation point on their set, and as a testament to their longevity. Outkast are back, and though they might not be here to stay, they’re as perfect as they ever were.