“Is it possible for me to fairly review the Outkast reunion?”
This thought had been lingering in the back of my mind ever since I knew that I’d be covering the first night of Osheaga, when the famed, deeply strange Atlanta hip-hop duo would be bringing their 40-stop reunion tour to Montreal. Could I fairly assess the experience of seeing a group whose work I had spent countless hours of my teenage years listening to and obsessing over? Would I be able to judge, with any sort of accuracy, the quality of the musical performance in this show which once seemed, if not impossible, at least highly improbable?
The answer—which I knew the minute the duo, comprised of André3000 and Big Boi, walked on stage and the opening synthesizer sounds of “B.O.B.” came through the massive main-stage speakers—was a resounding “no”. I wouldn’t be able to separate what was happening onstage from my prior relationship with this much beloved tag-team of southern hip-hop weirdos; so, I’ll do my best to convey what the experience was like for me.
To start, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the festival setting was wrong for the event. This is hardly a problem limited to Osheaga, since all of the tour stops—outside of a few dates in their hometown of Atlanta at the end of September—are at festivals. For a few reasons, settings like these simply can’t do justice to a show like this one.
First, and possibly foremost, the perennial auditory problems that plague outdoor performances were present in full force throughout the set. The hook on “The Way You Move” fails to grab you with its maximum potential when you can’t distinguish the funky guitar bends that introduce it from the thundering bass or the dull roar of crowd disinterest. The live band was a nice touch, and the horns in particular added an extra dose of grittiness to boisterous songs like “Ghettomusick”, but their contribution was often difficult to discern. The nuances present throughout the work of a group as detail-obsessed as Outkast can’t be conveyed when they’re being blasted through speakers loud enough to be deafening even to those nowhere near them.
Another frustrating issue was much of the audience’s failure to appreciate the moment. About a quarter of the way through the hour and a half long set, the girl standing next to me turned to me and said, “They need to play ‘Shake it like a Polaroid picture!’” Though I didn’t conduct extensive research among the audience, my sense throughout the set was that this was the typical level of familiarity with Outkast’s work. Everyone seemed happy enough to be there, but nothing—even pop culture icons such as “Ms. Jackson”—garnered the level of enthusiasm that you’d expect at these live performances.
Before I sink too deeply into the throes of curmudgeonliness, I want to be clear—this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with a bunch of people getting together to drink, dance, and have a good time, all to the tune of a smattering of artists representing a wide spectrum of the current pop music landscape. Yet I can’t help but feel that Outkast deserves more than this. I’m glad that they’ll be greeted by a crowd solely composed of their faithful when they finally play in Atlanta, but their body of work is impressive enough that they merit that sort of adoring fandom wherever they go. Their music warrants people shouting out all of the words to “Player’s Ball”, not a collective “Aque-meh-ni.”
But still. There’s no way to express the magic of seeing tens of thousands of people obey as Andréinstructed them to “throw your hands in the air” during the “ATLiens” hook. Even if all of these people were equally happy to do whatever Skrillex had told them to do, it was hard not to crack a smile while watching them play along with Outkast’s shtick. If there’s a scenario where dancing to a tune as irresistibly groovy as “Rosa Parks” with a huge crowd isn’t fun, I don’t want to imagine it. Moments like these are why I knew, from the moment the Outkast reunion was announced, that I wouldn’t dare miss it, even if it couldn’t possibly live up to my hopes.
Was it a great performance? Probably not. But it didn’t need to be. Sure, there was undoubtedly more that could have been gleaned from the reunion of one of the most important hip-hop groups of all time. Still, seeing André3000 and Big Boi play a set filled with the tunes that gave them their reputation in front of a crowd that felt as big as “The Whole World” was more than enough to ensure that the show would end feeling like it had been something special, and it’s hard to argue with that.