When OutKast Ruled the World: The 15th Anniversary of ‘Speakerboxxx / The Love Below’
On Sept. 23, 2003, Andre 3000 and Big Boi dropped a genre-bending double album that dominated the airwaves and is, crazily enough, the last hip-hop LP to win Album of the Year.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since OutKast dropped a mushroom cloud of a double album on popular music and proceeded to dominate mainstream culture over the course of two years. Andre 3000 and Big Boi released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below on Sept. 23, 2003, one of the most highly-anticipated, commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums of the last 25 years. That album’s success belies the uncertainty that came before and after its release, and the way the duo navigated such a challenging and unusual project is still a study in managing creativity, branding and personal interests under the gaze of a wanting public.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below immediately went to No. 1, selling over 500,000 copies in its opening frame. The album was certified diamond with 10 million copies sold by December. The album famously won Album of the Year at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards in 2004, and no hip-hop artist has won the award since. For an act that had spent a decade cultivating one of the most enviable discographies in hip-hop, it was a high point both commercially and creatively. Looking back, it signifies the emergence of southern hip-hop as the dominant voice in urban music and cemented OutKast as standard-bearers for a generation of artists in a wide array of genres.
And everyone should’ve seen it coming.
At the close of the 1990s, with A Tribe Called Quest having slowly deteriorated and De La Soul having hit a commercial nadir mid-decade, OutKast had assumed the mantle of mainstream hip-hop’s most critically-revered act. After their red-clay-and-real-talk debut southernplayalisticadillacmuzik made two teenage rhymers from Southwest Atlanta’s Tri-Cities High School Atlanta’s national rap ambassadors, Dre and Big Boi had evolved into a forward-pushing, genre-hopping tour de force. The ethereal ATLiens, released in 1996, was an unexpected shift in direction and 1998’s stylistically-varied Aquemini proved the ambition of that masterpiece was no fluke. And unlike Tribe and De La, OutKast was peaking at the same time that hip-hop was becoming more centered in mainstream pop culture. Even second-tier rappers were selling platinum albums and dominating MTV, so OutKast’s hot streak placed them squarely at the forefront of that hyper-visible era. But they weren’t exactly pop stars. That would soon change.
At the dawn of Y2K, OutKast’s fourth album Stankonia suddenly turned the critical darlings into bona fide across-the-board superstars. That album’s second single “Ms. Jackson” was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 200, and the album had sold three million copies and was on its way to four by 2002. But OutKast was in a state of limbo following that album’s crossover success. Andre 3000 had already been expanding into various directions and interests; his already-intricate flow had developed into a singsongy croon at various moments throughout Stankonia, and his established eccentricities were leading him into musical realms that weren’t exactly “OutKast.”
But after Stankonia, Andre had grown tired of the grind of the music industry. He’d decided he didn’t want to perform live anymore and moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles to cultivate a burgeoning movie career. Despite his divided interests, he’d also started working on a more avant-garde musical project that felt divorced from his work with Big Boi. So he was doing it on his own.
“The Love Below was originally supposed to be a solo album,” Andre explained to Rolling Stone in 2004. “At the last minute, management and the record company said it wasn’t a good time to do that, so Big Boi did Speakerboxxx. But I was taking so long to finish The Love Below that he wanted to release that as a solo album. A lot of people don’t know the album almost wasn’t made…”
As Big Boi prepped his own project and 3000 was putting together his, there were rumors that the group was in a place of discord. They may have been disconnected, but they were nonetheless wildly inspired. Dre had absorbed a plethora of Prince, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and was exploring a singer-songwriter aesthetic that put him squarely at odds with hip-hop’s blingiest era. And Big Boi, often portrayed as the more “traditionally” hip-hop presenting of the two, melded his love of Parliament-Funkadelic, gospel, southern-fried grit and playa-speak into an ambitious follow-up to Stankonia’s futuristic funk.
The Love Below was Andre 3000 exploring themes of love, sex and loss, crooning in a warble that seemed half-tribute, half-parody to unorthodox vocalists like Sly, playing a little guitar, and moving away from the hip-hop sound even OutKast had cultivated. “Prototype,” the album’s fourth single, was a lilting ballad featuring 3000 cooing uncertain and lovelorn lyrics over smooth guitar lines. “Roses” is a thumping groove built on an oddball chorus and 3000’s declarations to an unlikable woman named “Caroline.” Big Boi drops a verse, and the song was another Top Ten hit for OutKast. The video featured a West Side Story-style high school feud between Dre’s The Love Below squad and Big Boi’s crew, Speakerboxxx.
Songs like “Dracula’s Wedding” and “Pink & Blue” were more off-kilter explorations of doomed marriages and May-December romances, respectively. Andre’s vision was heavily indebted to Prince, and there hasn’t been a major hip-hop release as unusually off-brand as The Love Below. Andre had been dropping clues as to where he was going, but no one was really prepared when the first two singles from the upcoming OutKast album featured a mutant Andre song that fell somewhere between pop-rock genius and goofball novelty.
“Hey Ya!” became a pop-culture phenomenon unto itself. The single spawned covers, parodies, tributes—it became a go-to karaoke staple and one of the most inescapable songs of the 2000s. It was released alongside Big Boi’s “The Way You Move,” a classic dance floor anthem with Earth Wind & Fire-esque horns and Sleepy Brown’s stellar vocal hook. “The Way You Move” sat at No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts behind “Hey Ya” for eight weeks, before supplanting it in February 2004. OutKast had two of the biggest songs of the year and those hits pushed Speakerboxxx/The Love Below past 10 million records sold, a phenomenal success for 2 dope boyz from Atlanta who were getting booed at The Source Awards less than a decade earlier.
Because of The Love Below’s uniqueness and 3000’s boundary-pushing image and undeniable charisma, much of the double LP’s initial praise focused on the man born Andre Benjamin. Dre always carried an air of quiet mystery that made him intriguing to fans, and with the two MCs delivering separate-but-conjoined projects, it gave the public an excuse to zero in on Dre specifically—which they did, as people fawned over his moody collection of heartsick curiosities. It flew in the face of what many people thought rappers could do musically or express lyrically.
“In hip-hop, people don't talk about their vulnerable or sensitive side a lot because they're trying to keep it real or be tough—they think it makes them look weak,” 3000 told The Guardian after the album’s release. “That’s what ‘The Love Below’ means, that bubbling-under feeling that people don’t like to talk about, that dudes try to cover up with machismo.”
But Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx was just as musically rich and consistently listenable. His knack for hooks, playerific posturing and inspired street wisdom proved to be more than just a complement to 3000’s weirdness; Big Boi’s relatability made him a different kind of draw, and his stellar craft was undeniable all over Speakerboxxx. “Ghetto Musick,” the album’s fourth single, featuring a thundering combo of 808s and a stellar Patti LaBelle sample, features some of Antwan Patton’s best rapping, and on his set, Big Boi explores everything from the War On Terror (“War”) to the difficulties of co-parenting (“The Rooster”). With appearances from Goodie MOB, Ludacris and Lil Jon, it feels the most unapologetically Atlanta of the two discs, but no less bold than Andre’s more celebrated half.
“I could be getting one beat from Pharrell, another from someone else,” Big told Rolling Stone. “It’s like picking out a wardrobe. ‘I want a Versace hat, Gucci pants, some Louis Vuitton shoes.’ But I don’t want that. I want my own style.
“You can ask Dré: From day one, I thought the shit on this record was jamming. Management was getting panicky. They thought the singles were too left. I said, ‘Let’s hold our dicks on this one.’ Like, ‘Don’t budge.'”
“We ain’t budging.”
The differences between Big Boi and Dre had been apparent almost from day one, though especially since their third album Aquemini. But with OutKast dropping a double album of what was basically two solo projects, and doing separate interviews during the press run for that album, it seemed obvious that the duo was divided. There was some effort to downplay the idea that OutKast was headed for a divorce, but Andre acknowledged that there had been something of a rift as the two stars began to push into opposite—if complementary—aesthetic directions.
“I remember the first full-on photoshoot where there was a total change. We had disagreements,” Dre said in 2003. “I gave all the concepts and ideas to the photographer, like, ‘Yeah, we gonna be in the sunflower field, there’s gonna be these girls and they gonna have their faces painted and they’re gonna have this silver shit on, like women from space.’ So Big Boi comes along and he’s like, ‘What the fuck? What am I gonna do? I’m gonna look like a fucking fool here!’ A lot of pictures didn’t get taken.”
And their longtime collaborators Organized Noize weren’t involved in the creation of OutKast’s most massively successful project. That superproducer trio of Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown had guided Andre and Big Boi’s steps early in their career, producing the entirety of southernplayalisticadillacmuzik back in 1994, and had a hand in co-producing everything after as OutKast emerged as production savants in their own right (as Earthtone III alongside longtime collaborator Mr. DJ). That is, until OutKast was putting together their double album.
“We wasn’t even on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” Wade said in the 2016 documentary Art of Organized Noize. “Them niggas actually said out they mouth, they wanna do this album by they self. I gave you your opportunity. That shit never will go away. I don’t care how much hugs and kisses—whatever. We gotta do something else together to fix that. That was arrogant as shit.”
OutKast’s growth had happened steadily over the ten years between their debut single “Player’s Ball” and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s success. That growth had seen them scale hip-hop and popular music’s mountaintop, but as is typically the case, it led to growing pains and growing apart. Following the album’s run, Andre became even less enamored with pursuing music. He continued to focus on acting and other interests, but OutKast would release another album in the 2006 soundtrack to their film Idlewild. The reception to the soundtrack and the film was tepid enough to give 3000 motivation to move on and there hasn’t been an OutKast album released since. Big Boi officially launched his solo career with Sir Lucious Left Food: The Son of Chico Dusty in 2010 and hasn’t looked back, rattling off a string of albums and side projects, bolstering his legend while still carrying the torch for OutKast as a new generation emerges.
That no hip-hop artist has taken the highest award at the Grammys since Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s big night says as much about the award as it does the album. OutKast’s blockbuster double album was an unconventional combination of brilliant artistry and stellar craftsmanship filtered through two uniquely complementary personas. It was just hip-hop enough to connect with their established audience and eclectically “other” enough to pique the interests of those who’d never heard of The Dungeon Family. Hip-hop’s creativity shouldn’t have to be presented in various other formats to be lauded by the mainstream, but it’s a fight the genre still wages. Industry validation or lack thereof won’t ever keep greatness from shining, however, and the greatness of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below isn’t in any awards won. It’s in the art that Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton delivered at the most epochal moment in their careers. OutKast exists mostly in retrospect these days, but they remain the gold standard for a reason. Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Janelle Monae and a host of others all stand on their shoulders. They gave us a blueprint for bold creativity.
Here’s hoping more artists dare to follow it.