No one debates the value of artistic greatness, and popularity is - well, arguably - a pretty good thing too. Even better is when the two coincide - when the artist doing the best work also happens to be one of the most popular ones around.
The members of Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast are, by rap standards, grizzled veterans - their first single, "Player's Ball," was #1 for six weeks on the rap charts in 1994. Better still, while riding a pretty continuous wave of popular success, Big Boi and Dre 3000 have consistently turned out inventive, progressive music, hitting a particularly high point with 1998's Aquemini.
Offering an optimistic, lyrical vision over a vibrant, instrumental backing rife with exotic instruments, southern-fried soul and inventive arrangements, Aquemini and its ubiquitous single "Rosa Parks" set the bar for future releases almost impossibly high. Happily, the new Stankonia is up to the task, matching the rich music and lively lyricism of its predecessor with an even more wide-ranging ambition.
A gangsta-rooted but hopeful assessment of inner-city woes, joys and loves, Stankonia opens with "Gasoline Dreams," an urban griot's call-to-attention that Chuck D will think he wrote: "Don't everybody like the smell of gasoline?/ Well burn muthafucka burn American dreams!"
Dre and Big Boi are in typically fine form lyrically, trading rapid-fire flows, alternately sensitive - as on the moving "Mrs. Jackson" and "Toilet Tisha" - funny, and hard-edged. The music is some of the richest and most rewarding of their career, a constantly evolving wash of deep funk, vintage hardcore rap and southern soul with thick synthesizers and live drums.
The album's positive and progressive vibe, then, makes ugly retro-gangsta moments like "Gangsta Sh*t" seem all the more ridiculous and unnecessary. With Stankonia standing as such an advanced and intelligent statement, why mar it with tacked-on gangsta affectations?