QUEENS, New York — Between the lustrous gold ‘BB’ chain, the pungent billows of marijuana smoke pouring from a plus-sized blunt, and my reflection gazing back at me in his purple-lensed aviator shades, it’s proving rather difficult to concentrate in the presence of Big Boi.
We are sitting across from one another in his trailer at The Meadows Music & Arts Festival, a music fest held a stone’s throw from the far less electrifying activity over at Citi Field in Queens, New York City. In an hour, the Atlanta MC will take the stage, dazzling the crowd with a medley of solo and Outkast hits, from “Shutterbugg” to “ATLiens.” But right now, the 42-year-old hip-hop legend is lazing on the couch, donning comfy-looking rap armor: a military-style khaki jacket (with matching pants) about two sizes too big.
When I ask him how he’s managed to maintain longevity in what JAY-Z once called “a young man’s game,” he leans forward and takes a puff before flashing a big grin. “A young man’s game or a distinguished gentleman with young man’s face,” he says. “We got a jump on the game when we were sixteen, seventeen years old, whereas nowadays you see a lot of rappers getting on in their twenties. We started as teenagers, so that’s why we still do what we do. We’re still in touch with what the people want, and I’ve got three kids that keep me plugged in to the streets.”
He pauses, puffing again. “Hip-hop comes in a lot of different forms. Some of it is lyric-driven, some of it’s driven by 808s or Auto-Tune, but we come from the school of making complete, whole albums of nothing but Jedi Rap Shit. Being a master at your craft, you have to always maintain the mindset of being a student. So I’m still learning.”
The “we” Big Boi is referring to—as he does often during our chat—is Outkast, the groundbreaking hip-hop duo he formed in 1991 with André 3000. The genre-melding group birthed several classic albums, including ATLiens, Aquemini, Stankonia, and Speakerboxx/The Love Below, the latter being the only hip-hop album to ever take home the Grammy for Album of the Year.
And yet, despite their success, you rarely see Big Boi or André 3000 appearing on lists of the top MCs in the game. Perhaps they’re so damn smooth that they make it look effortless.
“You can’t rate something that’s off the scale, you feel what I’m sayin’?” offers Big Boi. “I can only be matched by André 3000, and we take pride in that. It’s not cockiness or nothing like that. Check the numbers, check the paperwork, check the scoreboard, check the catalog. I’m like the boogeyman: people don’t acknowledge something that they fear.”
“But there’s no competition for me. I’m only competing against myself,” he continues. “So whenever these fan lists come out, it means nothing to me. Check the tape. We won Album of the Year. No hip-hop artist has ever done that. We went diamond, several Grammys, every Moon Man, BETs. We done cleaned the closet, and the music speaks for itself, to be here twenty-plus years and still rockin’ two, three generations of people.”
Outkast abruptly split in late 2006, following the release of their film-musical Idlewild. But the longtime pals reunited for a globetrotting tour in 2014 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Their breakup was famously spoofed in a popular Key & Peele sketch, with André 3000 depicted as an eccentric cartoon character in a Peter Pan hat, and Big Boi as the responsible adult tired of his New Age nonsense.
“That shit was hilarious. That shit was hi-la-ri-ous,” Big Boi says of the comedy bit. As far as its accuracy goes, however, he adds, “Way off. Way off. But perception is a motherfucker. For them to spoof what people think we are is crazy, and we both had a good laugh off that. What did they say? ‘Bring him a latte with some sunflower seeds, or some shit?’ ‘Dre would order straight tequila. Tequila and some vodka and some shit.”
The question remains: When will we get another Outkast album? The answer, it seems, is up to André 3000... and a higher power.
“You’ve gotta talk to Jesus, man! You’ve gotta talk to Jesus,” says Big Boi. “I’m always open. I’m always open. So when plans and stars align one day… you never know.”
Since Outkast’s untimely demise, Big Boi has presided over a thriving solo career, with the critically lauded albums Sir Lucious Left Foot, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, and the recent Boomiverse, released this past summer. He’s also released an EP and toured as part of Big Grams, his side project with the electro rock duo Phantogram.
Boomiverse is an eclectic LP that turns on a dime from 808s to acoustic guitars. There’s one particular line on the album, though, that’s generated a bit of controversy. On the surging single “Kill Jill,” which features fellow ATL natives Killer Mike and Jeezy, Big Boi raps, “They say Cosby gave ‘em roofies / Now who know what the truth is (what?).”
But Big Boi insists that he’s not pulling a Kanye West here. “That shit was just a part of the music,” he explains. “Like, I don’t go in with the intent of—unless it’s a song specifically like ‘War’—but lyrical content is when you put together words, sentences, and phrases that make sense. Sometimes they make you think and people will wonder, hey, why’d they say that? But I definitely wasn’t defending anybody. I was just posing the question: they said he did this, who knows what the truth is? Were you there? Did you sip some? Did he rub his dick on you? You know what I mean? I talk in real plain terms like that, and people are always so quick to judge folks, but I could give two fucks about that shit.”
Asked what new hip-hop acts are on his radar, he runs off a list of his friends and collaborators, such as Run the Jewels, Janelle Monáe, and Phantogram. He also says he’s a fan of the Canadian outfit BADBADNOTGOOD and The Budos Band, and is feeling Cardi B. “I think with Cardi B, you saw her personality on her TV show, and when she made music, she was herself. People buy into other people, so I applaud her wholeheartedly. I’m just waiting to see what she gonna put out next.”
As far as Iggy Azalea—who was discovered by his pal Backbone and mentored by his ATL co-star T.I.—goes, Big Boi claims to not be familiar with her music, or her fake Southern hip-hop persona, blaccent and all. “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he says. “I don’t know nothing about the character… There’s a lot of talent that comes out, man, where people somehow cultivate such things to get to levels where mass amounts of people come to see them at shows. It’s… interesting. I’m one person that never judges though. I just worry about me. We gonna keep it about this music, keep jammin’, and stay unfuckwitable.”