How OutKast Set An Impossible Grammys Standard With Their Album Of The Year Win

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When OutKast won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2004, nearly the whole world seemed to think that the dynamic Atlanta duo was the most deserving. Before Carlos Santana and Faith Hill read the list of nominees, someone in Staples Center in Los Angeles yelled “ANDRE,” as in Andre 3000, who had just performed “Hey Ya!” When Santana got to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he pumped his fist in the air like he was cheering on his favorite team. By then, the double OutKast album had already sold 3.1 million copies.

In regards to hip-hop and its merits, despite the genre’s enormous impact on our music and our vernacular, the industry hasn’t quite been in agreement since. Only Arrested Development, Lauryn Hill and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have won Best New Artist, while in other big categories like Song and Record of the Year, hip-hop gets overlooked altogether. If a rap artist wins Album of the Year in 2018, it will be for the first time since OutKast won the trophy in 2004. Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino are all nominated for the trophy, which makes a win for hip-hop seem actually plausible. Yet, because of the nature of OutKast’s win, nothing is for certain, nothing is for sure.

Two years prior, of all the records nominated for Album of the Year, the four-times platinum Stankonia was both the critical and fan favorite. It was an artistic leap forward for the already-ambitious pair, and the blockbuster singles “B.O.B.,” “Ms. Jackson,” and “So Fresh So Clean” made a post-Civil Rights Era American South global takeover seem not only impending, but welcome. The overall reception struck Andre 3000 so much that when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won for Album of the Year, he said, “Stankonia is not our first album. Do the history.” Yet the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a T-Bone Burnett-led, carefully researched retread of what the American South had done before, would win the coveted trophy instead.

By the time Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was nominated for that same category, OutKast already had the name recognition that made a big win seem overdue. (“I actually did not expect to win,” Andre said in 2014. Yet on that stage, he pulled out a list of people to thank, from what can only be described as dreamcatcher drop-crotch pants.) The only Grammy nomination OutKast received prior to 2001 was for “Rosa Parks,” for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. That is to say nothing of 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, 1996’s ATLiens and 1998’s Aquemini — OutKast albums that amounted to Atlanta hip-hop’s man on the moon moment, and better testaments to how Big and Dre functioned as a duo.

Going into 2004, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below‘s lead singles “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” climbed into the top two positions on the Billboard Hot 100, making OutKast only the fourth act to achieve that feat. Those songs stayed there for eight straight weeks, while sometimes replacing each other on the top spot. “The Way You Move” topped Billboard‘s rap charts. “Hey Ya!” broke the top 20 in modern rock, adult top 40 and Latin pop airplay. By then, the Recording Academy already had a history of rewarding pop-friendly singles. Will Smith won four Grammys total, including Best Rap Performance for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” — the first time the Grammys had a rap category, period. The Grammy screening committees couldn’t possibly ignore the bizarre “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” chart takeover, on top of the album sales that eventually had Speakerboxxx/The Love Below go diamond, selling more than Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP.

“We were doing things that had never been done,”Phillana Williams, head of marketing of Arista Records, said to MTV News. “Putting out two singles from an album that was not a straight OutKast album, but one from Dre and one from Big Boi? Launching them simultaneously at radio and trying to do that at urban and pop? But then they went to all formats, because nobody wanted to be left out. Everyone wanted both songs!”

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below started as a batch of tracks Andre 3000 had been crafting at home for five years. Dre originally thought it would act as a soundtrack to a film directed by OutKast’s longtime video director Bryan Barber. “Four or five songs in, I told Big Boi about these plans, and he was cool with the idea but didn’t know if it was the right time,” Andre 3000 said in Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing. “We had just won Grammys and Big Boi and my manager thought the record company would be expecting to cash in on the next OutKast album.”

So what Speakerboxxx/The Love Below did instead was divide OutKast’s seemingly disparate influences (funk, punk, soul, techno) into two discs, a Big Boi album and an Andre 3000 album. The latter especially couldn’t have been more bored with rap, telling The Guardian about how his tastes ranged from Aphex Twin to the Buzzcocks, and how his DJ fell asleep during a Strokes concert. But OutKast’s manager Michael “Blue” Williams had long explained to music directors and concert bookers that the group’s appeal extended beyond regional and genre lines.

“My goal has always been for OutKast to be the biggest rap bands of all time and eventually one of the all-time great rock bands,” Williams said to PBS’ Frontline in 2004. “Because there’s a difference between a rap band and a rock band, and I think at the phase that we are right now, we’ve become a rock band. When you’re a rock band, your numbers are different. When you’re a rock band you can make a million dollars a night, to do a show. When you’re a rap band, you can make $100,000 a night. That might be the top you’ll make. And so that’s the difference.”

You could argue that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below apparently made such versatility all the plainer for the Grammys committee to see. Vince Staples might phrase that point differently. “It probably got [Album of the Year] because [the Recording Academy] was able to say, ‘Oh this isn’t a hip-hop album,’” he said to NPR just last month. To rephrase: This landmark hip-hop moment at the Grammys wasn’t about rewarding hip-hop for what it is. This isn’t entirely like how the Oscars overlooks comedies, though it is still a telling statement on what deserves industry recognition.

There are at least four more rap artists who have been nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy, but didn’t win. (Lauryn Hill’s win for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill predates OutKast’s by five years, though the former received mostly R&B gramophones. Of her ten nominations for the 1998 awards, only one, for “Lost Ones,” was for rap.) Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP lost to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature in 2000. Kanye West’s Late Registration lost to U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, as he was touring with U2. Graduation, West’s successful bid for arena rock success, lost to Herbie Hancock’s Rivers: The Joni Letters. Like West, Kendrick Lamar has been nominated for Album of the Year for three consecutive full-lengths, including DAMN. Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city lost to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2013, while Taylor Swift’s 1989 won over To Pimp A Butterfly two years later. Drake somehow didn’t earn his first Album of the Year nomination until last year, with Views.

You could try to justify these snubs based on artistic merit, critical reception or sales figures. (That is regardless of what the Recording Academy says, of how the Grammys strives “to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.”) What actually seems to be happening, though, is that hip-hop is being held to an entirely different standard, a near impossible one, based on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below‘s win. This doesn’t allow for innovations within the genre, much less indie success stories (at least, more indie than Chance the Rapper’s) to be celebrated within that space.

“It’s like winning the Super Bowl,” Big Boi said in 2013, on winning Album of the Year. But Staples figures that he would never know that feeling. On what rap artists should want from the Grammys, the Big Fish Theory artist further told NPR, “If you want that Best Rap Album, then of course. But then it’s kind of obvious that you probably won’t get Album of the Year. We’re not getting many packaging Grammys. It’s a lot of stuff that we’re not really getting.”

This year’s ceremony could help change that course. As mentioned above, three of the contenders for Album of the Year are hip-hop artists, even though Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! is more traditional funk than any OutKast album tried to be. Should they win, no one would be surprised if the artist in question calls this a win for hip-hop, acknowledging the momentousness of the occasion. But they should also feel free to address the good, hard work that the Grammys had already missed — implore the industry to do the history.