Stankonia

Ball if you want to, but do it with some class, G, scolds Big Boi of OutKast. On their fourth album, Stankonia, Big Boi and Andre 3000 prove that they may well be, as they claim, the coolest motherfunkers on the planet. Or, more specifically, as Big says, "Cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping on a milkshake in a snowstorm" — cool enough to make Stankonia one of the best albums of the year.

Since debuting in 1993 with the slow-rolling, velvet-interior funk of their single, "Player's Ball," OutKast have invoked George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic Seventies funk mythology. But unlike many of their hip-hop peers — notably Dr. Dre, for whom Clinton has been just a sound — OutKast have followed the spirit, and not just the letter, of the P-Funk law. On ATLiens (1996) they imagined themselves as comic-book extraterrestrials; 1998's wide-ranging Aquemini, spearheaded by the rapturous single "Rosa Parks," was one of the best rap albums of the Nineties and established OutKast as mainstream hip-hop's most progressive group. The duo had reversed Clinton's famous formula: They had freed their asses, and their minds followed.

If Aquemini was often like Parliament at their most sun-worshipping fun, Stankonia at its darkest has the jagged weight of Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and the politics of Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. The furious "B.O.B." is a blast of up-tempo, turn-of-the-century dislocation with electro breaks and a gospel choir. "Power music, electric revival," chants the choir at the end, sounding like some funkified Southern congregation where Chuck D is the preacher and Afrika Bambaataa is the musical director. The companion cut to "B.O.B." is "Gasoline Dreams," a hard, guitar-driven wake-up call where Big Boi puts America's problems in more personal terms: Silver Spoons TV hero "Ricky Stratton got a million bucks," while "my cousin Ricky Walker got ten years doing Fed time on a first-offense drug bust."

OutKast maintain a balance that protects their street credibility. Big Boi acts as a bare-knuckled B-boy to offset flamboyant Andre's more avant-garde moments: The former represents, and the latter comments. Big gets thugged out with some guest stars on the rough-edged "Snappin' and Trappin' " and "We Luv Deez Hoez." But even the most street-oriented songs have some sort of commentary in them: The ominous "Red Velvet" is about the envy and violence that can follow someone who flashes his diamonds and chrome like he's in a Jigga video. The rushing "Humble Mumble," which features Erykah Badu in a gorgeous cameo, talks about staying focused when the streets "reroute" your dreams.

With Stankonia, OutKast and their sometime producers Organized Noize have left behind much of the vernacular of Southern rap — the fluid, easy beats and drawling pace — that they helped create. These tracks all have a down-home generosity and accessibility, though. "I'll Call Before I Come," which is fueled by a Parliament-style bobbing synth line, warns fellas to take care of their ladies' needs in bed before their own ("No, after you," they tell their mates, again showing that they're Southern gentlemen). "Slum Beautiful" could be the least corny hip-hop love song yet. On the hilarious "Ms. Jackson," Andre tries to convince the mother of his upset baby mama that their love is real: "You say it's puppy love," he says, "we say it's full-grown."

Stankonia is a full-grown album. OutKast are on the brink of pulling off something that other hip-hop progressives like De La Soul haven't been able to do for any amount of time: Get played on the radio, keep it real, but also keep it right.

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