Looking Back On OutKast’s #1 Hit.
On September 9, 2003, OutKast released “Hey Ya!” the first single off their highly anticipated double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which would later become one of the most beloved songs of the millennium. Since its release, “Hey Ya!” has stayed a ubiquitous force in pop-culture, still playing on the radio, soundtracking weddings and bar mitzvahs where it makes children and grandparents alike “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” Though the sugary pop of “Hey Ya!” was hardly representative of the progressive Atlanta hip-hop of OutKast as a group, the song was the duo’s most lasting impact on popular culture and is even considered one of the best pop songs ever. Due to “Hey Ya!’s” clear-cut success, OutKast’s ambitious double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below remains the highest-selling hip-hop release of all-time, going Platinum over 11 times and edging out influential releases like Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death.
In fact, last month, ESPN’s Grantland hosted a 64-song bracket tournament to crown “The Best Song Of The Millennium.” In the final round, OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” beat out Adele’s 2010 rousing kiss-off “Rolling In The Deep” by over 20,000 votes. For a final battle, picking between those two songs seemed fitting: both were massively successful and stayed atop international singles charts for weeks and both packaged relatively melancholy themes into sugary, cathartic, and danceable pop songs. With Adele’s 21 being the most globally successful album in the past two years with “Rolling In The Deep” selling a gargantuan 13 million digital copies, OutKast winning with a 10 year old song makes the feat that much more impressive.
When first released, “Hey Ya!” stayed atop the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks (ousted by another OutKast track, “The Way You Move”), though it was the most downloaded song for a mind-boggling 17 weeks. Granted, downloading wasn’t a big as it is now, but the single quickly went platinum and managed to be the one of the best-selling songs of the 2000s.
Much of Speakerboxx/The Love Below’s success is due to the near-unanimous critical and commercial success of “Hey Ya!,” which proved to be one of the few songs that both my grandparents and Pitchfork could agree on. And from mere personal experience, one of the only criticisms I’ve heard directed at the tune are from hardcore OutKast fans who would rather hear “SpottieOttieDopalicious” or “Rosa Parks” receive as much acclaim. In fact, “Hey Ya!” was so universally beloved (and still is) that it’s hard to think of a song in the last decade that had the same cultural reaction. At the time, the song was cooler than cool—it was ice cold.
Meeting as teenagers in high school, Big Boi and André 3000 loved rapping and listening to records. Later on they met Rico Wade, and began collaborating with his budding production company Organized Noize. A couple years later, Big Boi and Dré contributed “Player’s Ball” to LaFace Record’s 1993 Christmas Compilation album. The success of this first single led to the release of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, a thrilling debut full of funky live instrumentals that not only captured Atlanta hip-hop but also moved it forward. The band slowly gained traction with each release, 1996’s ATLiens and 1998’s Aquemini. With 2000’s Stankonia, the band showed off their diverse tastes to create their most purposefully eccentric album yet. It topped many critics’ best-of lists showing that OutKast were going to stay, and that their next album had to impress.
Despite their synchronicity at the recording studio, after Stankonia their partnership became a little bit more frayed. As Ben Westhoff puts it in his book Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop “Big smokes weed constantly, while André famously became vegan and stopped smoking pot and drinking booze.” In fact, Westhoff even notes that they toured on separate busses. Their relationship became increasingly frayed as André 3000 would openly talk about either quitting music, starting an acting career, or even seemingly having disdain for Big Boi—as evident in this 2006 New York Times Magazine profile where André 3000 condescendingly says Big Boi brings “the common man’s ear” to make OutKast work. The announcement that 2003’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below would be a double solo album fueled speculation that OutKast would break up. It also didn’t help speculation that Big Boi only appeared on one track off André’s experimental rock-opera a la Prince The Love Below while André appeared on more than a couple songs off Speakerboxx. Even then Presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark even gave his own two cents on the matter in an unintentionally hilarious campaign commercial during the 2004 race.
What made OutKast such a success, apart from André 3000’s and Big Boi’s complementary charisma, is their willingness to expand their sound and employ as many of their influences as possible, using soul, gangsta rap, funk, rock, heavy metal, jazz, and electronic to create idiosyncratic, yet accessible music. This is evident in much of the group’s discography, but the mainstream audience took notice when Stankonia’s “Ms. Jackson” hit the airwaves. That enthusiasm was later dwarfed by the fervor after “Hey Ya!” was released. Though Big Boi has been praised for pushing his sonic palate, André 3000 is credited for being the visionary behind the group, using his seemingly boundless creativity to turn as many heads as possible. Dressed like an impeccably stylish flamboyant golfer, André 3000 had the charm and star-power to make OutKast the biggest thing in not just hip-hop, but also pop music.
Appearing on André 3000’s effort The Love Below, “Hey Ya!” took a lot of work to record due in part to how many influences the song draws from, and also how many vocal tracks André 3000 had laid down. Pete Novak, a recording engineer, claimed that while recording “Hey Ya!,” “André 300 would do 30 or 40 takes of each line” scrapping takes over and over again until he found the right one. At the end of the recording session, there were about 20 different versions of the track, including one that had a verse sung through a Vocoder. Driven by Dré’s perfectionism, the final product echoes the many different directions André took while recording it without taking away from the track’s cohesiveness.
The video for “Hey Ya!” also proved to be as iconic as the single itself. Conceived as a riff on The Beatles historic 1964 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, André 3000 wanted to bring his fictional The Love Below Band to England and get the same wild response from the fans. Shot by Bryan Barber, the video for “Hey Ya!” had André 3000 playing each member of 8-person The Love Below Band, acoustic guitarist Johnny Vulture, backup-singing trio the Love Haters, bassist Possum Jenkins, drummer Dookie Blasingame, keyboardist Benjamin André, and lead singer André “Ice Cold” 3000. In order to get each shot, André 3000 had to play all 8 characters in 3 takes to get the slick effect of having a band full of André 3000s performing in front of 100 screaming female extras. Because recording the video was so grueling, each dance move was improvised rather than choreographed. Fortunately André 3000 was up to the task, and his funky and silly dance moves provided the right amount of enthusiasm to make the video one of the most memorable videos in the post-MTV era.
The infectious melody, handclaps, and vocal gymnastics from André 3000 made “Hey Ya!” such a massive hit that its lyrics, when paid attention to, are much darker than its music’s positive vibes. As one writer put it, “Why would a tribute to commitment-free sex from a hip-hop duo be playing at a middle school dance, or on a mother’s radio as she drops the kids off at Chuck E. Cheese?” Though to be fair to André 3000, that writer sells the song a bit short. In an interview with MTV, André 3000 explained, “’Hey Ya!’ is pretty much about the state of relationships in the 2000s. It’s about some people who stay together in relationships because of tradition because somebody told them [to].” Instead of being together with someone and be completely unhappy, André 3000 argues that “’Hey Ya!’ is really about saying, ‘Fuck it. Live life, you know?”
There are loads of fantastically memorable one-liners throughout “Hey Ya!,” chief among them being the inescapable “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” That one line, as ridiculous as it sounded, became irrevocable in 2003-4 pop culture, even prompting the flailing Polaroid Corporation to advise users not to vigorously “shake it” for risk of damaging the photo. Of course, this is because the modern version of Polaroid film dried behind a clear plastic window, so shaking it the Polaroid was no longer necessary to speed up the photo’s development. That said, it didn’t stop the phrase from reaching a near fever pitch of use in popular culture—even 58-year-old Gen. Wesley Clark, continuing his pitch to youth voters by name-dropping OutKast, told an audience on the 2004 Presidential campaign trail, “I don’t know much about hip-hop, but I do know OutKast can make you shake it like a Polaroid picture.” The OutKast references were even more prevalent on the campaign trail, with President George W. Bush’s daughters making scripted jokes about the band in their pop-culture infused speech at the 2004. When Dennis Kucinich is publicly dancing to hip-hop at a campaign stop, it’s obvious that you have a serious cultural moment—so much so that Robert Christgau dubbed 2003 “the year the Democrats discovered hip-hop.”
Recently, many thinkpieces have been devoted to Miley Cyrus’s admitted appropriation of black culture to change her image, especially in the context of her recent VMA performance and music video for “We Can’t Stop” where she twerked, sparked controversy, and even got the National Review’s Kathryn Jean-Lopez to weigh in even though nobody asked her to. For “Hey Ya!,” the opposite was true, The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin wrote, “Caucasians have stolen so much and so flagrantly from black culture that we tend to get disproportionately excited and flattered when black artists borrow from movements historically and culturally considered white.” Sure, “Hey Ya!” with its Beatles-inspired video, pop-rock sensibilities, and catchiness appealed to white audiences but its music also wasn’t neutered. As Rabin notes, “Hey Ya!” condensed five decades of music evolution into the perfect pop single.”
While many argue that “Hey Ya!” is not OutKast’s best track, it’s worth arguing that “Hey Ya!” is one of the best pop songs ever. Few other pop songs come close to being so loved by so many people, critics and casual listeners alike. Like any massively successful single, radio overplay undoubtedly made some sick of it, but 10 years later, it holds up a lot better than some of the popular singles from 2003 (does anyone still play “Get Busy” by Sean Paul or “Bump, Bump, Bump” by B2K?). After probably hundreds of listens over the decade, “Hey Ya!” still sounds revelatory, and unabashedly fun. The strange cornucopia of styles ranging from rock, funk, and doo-wop nod back to an older time without sounding outdated. In fact, the song sounds fresh, even timeless.
After their (by comparison) lackluster 2006 soundtrack to Idlewild, the group hasn’t released anything else or toured since the release. Since then, there’s a reason every time music festival season rolls around there are new rumors about OutKast finally reuniting. Unfortunately, the rumors have been just wishful thinking. In hopes of seeing Big Boi and André 3000’s complicated marriage get back together and perform, I’ll quote Dré’s line in UGK’s “International Players Anthem,” and tell André to “Keep your heart, Three Stacks, keep your heart.”
Josh Terry is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago who still hasn’t left the city and probably never will. His work has appeared in the The A.V. Club though, in conversation, most people think he’s talking about his high school Audio/Visual Club. Still one to hero worship, he denies the existence of the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration (Lou Reed is one of his heroes, though he did go through a Thrash phase in high school). You can follow him on Twitter and read his old A.V. Club articles.