Lessons from André 3000 on identity and the pursuit of weirdness
“Ain’t nobody dope as me, I’m just so fresh so clean.”
So starts the chorus of “So Fresh and So Clean,” the fourth track off OutKast’s fourth album, Stankonia, released 19 years ago last month. To the uninitiated, the line may sound like typical hip-hop braggadocio. But to those of us who worship at the altar of OutKast, it’s more of a mission statement, the crux of a broader proclamation issued incrementally over Stankonia’s hour-and-a-half-long running time: We’re different, yeah, but we’re cool, and we’re cool precisely because we’re different—in fact, ain’t nobody cool like us.
Delivered in ebullient style and executed in unapologetically Southern diction, this proclamation amounts to nothing less than originality as rebellion, honesty as truth — and it changed hip-hop forever. It also changed the life of a certain anxious suburban boy who was searching for, as André 3000 would later put it, “anything that seemed real in the world.”
I was a freshman in high school when I sat alone in the dark of my room on a cold December night and pressed play on Stankonia for the first time. I’d had a screwed-up year, spending most of it in my psychiatrist’s office, sunk low in an oversized armchair, studying my hands while Dr. Omar detailed why he was yet again upping my dosage of Zoloft. (“Let’s just see what 10 more milligrams does for you.”)
To a boy who lived in a bubble of self-consciousness, and to whom cultural norms were cosmic codas.– Discovering André was a revelation
My primary problem was social anxiety, and like many teenagers, I exacerbated my symptoms by ruthlessly comparing myself to the “cool” kids. I desperately wanted to be like them, and I tortured myself in misguided efforts to conform. Self-conscious to the cuticle, I spent a shameful amount of time planted before my bathroom mirror, contorting my face into what I thought was a cool, bad-boy glare. I pretended to enjoy the same music as everyone else, watched the same TV shows, and even wore the same clothes — which unfortunately meant lots of baggy, wannabe-gangster apparel from Foot Locker, a look that does not wear well on scrawny, privileged white kids from the suburbs.
In the end, I found myself not only in private despair, but entirely unsure of who I was supposed to be.
There were certain aspects of myself that I liked, but I didn’t think any of my more honest traits could ever be considered cool. I didn’t like the music everyone else liked. I didn’t like watching sports. I played computer games, wrote poetry, and read fiction. I wrote melodramatic short stories and harbored dreams of one day becoming a novelist. I was certain that if other people found out that sports, girls, and screwing off in class were not the only things I cared about, I’d be ostracized, which amounted in my mind to a kind of death. So confused, uncool, and unhappy I remained.
And then I found Stankonia.
Stankonia is the fourth studio album by American hip hop duo OutKast. It was released on October 31, 2000, by La Face Records. Read more about Stankonia on Wikipedia
As I listened to that album for the first time — taking in the kaleidoscopic instrumentation, the melodies that ranged from propulsive to swampy (see “Stanklove”), and the acrobatic rapping that delved into straight-up singing — OutKast’s style and story enlightened me to a new dimension of possibility, both in terms of creative expression and personal happiness.
To be truly cool is to be so admirably original as to inspire others to conform to you.– Unknown
In the world of early 2000s hip-hop, OutKast was revolutionary. Hip-hop was, at the time, obsessed with depictions of material wealth and evidence of adversity overcome, wherein both purveyors and appreciators strove myopically to convey toughness and success. Yet here André was, performing “Ms. Jackson” at the Grammys in platform heels, a blond wig, and a frilly peach jumpsuit, and looking damn cool doing it. Then there was “Ms. Jackson” going #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; Stankonia being nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys; and André and Big Boi gracing the covers of nearly every national music magazine, from Spin to Vibe.
Watching all this unfold taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: Coolness has nothing to do with conformity—what really makes a person cool is the conviction with which they commit to their most original, unabashed self. To be truly cool is to be so admirably original as to inspire others to conform to you. (There’s a reason Lil Wayne, in detailing his modus operandi years later on Tha Carter III, rapped: “Gotta work every day/ gotta not be cliché / gotta stand out like André 3k.”)
As clinical psychologist Julie Gurner once observed: “A ‘cool’ person is someone whose attitude and behaviors are composed but seen as uniquely their own. I think people are genuinely drawn to ‘cool’ people because they see them as a representation of who they wish to be — confident in who they are.”
As it happens, Stankonia epitomizes this exact truth, which partly explains why it was received so enthusiastically. I don’t believe it’s OutKast’s best album musically — that honor goes to Aquemini — but it’s arguably their most OutKast album. Throughout Stankonia, André and Big Boi joyfully embrace their weirdness and originality in a way that lends the self-conscious among us a unique kind of inspiration. And in this sense, Stankonia is not just a reflection but an amplification of OutKast’s core identity and ambition.
I spent much of high school and college memorizing Stankonia’s lyrics and studying the audacity with which they were delivered. With the sort of zealotry unique to youth, I came to love both Big Boi and André, though I admit my love was especially fervent for André. By way of his turban, along with the things he rapped and sang about — aliens, mental health, style — he defied every expectation of the genre he’d so deftly turned on its head. And he did so naturally. Nothing about him felt cloying, corporate, or manipulative.
It’s easy to look at a celebrity dancing onstage and convince ourselves that he has access to certain abilities or powers that we don’t.– It is more important to understand the Power of YOU
To a boy who lived in a bubble of self-consciousness, and to whom cultural norms were cosmic codas, discovering André was a revelation. His music and style inspired me to begin dressing, speaking, and behaving in a manner that felt more natural and exciting to me. He also inspired me to embrace my art, which had an important impact on my happiness.
It wasn’t all roses, of course. People instinctively ridicule that which is different, either because they fear it or don’t understand it. And just as OutKast were slighted when they first started out — they were roundly booed at the 1995 Source Awards when they won Album of the Year — I was made fun of, too. After I endeavored to have some of my fiction published in my high school newspaper, a few of the dumber people I hung out with called me “gay.”
The more I put myself out there, though, the easier I found it to ignore such people — and the better I felt about myself.
One aspect of André’s story that I find particularly inspiring is how hard he worked to create and maintain his persona. It’s easy to look at a celebrity dancing onstage and convince ourselves that he has access to certain abilities or powers that we don’t. But that’s simply not true. André, for example, “the coolest motherfunker on the planet,” actually suffers from social anxiety, which he opened up about in a 2017 interview with GQ:
I was diagnosed with this social thing. I didn’t notice it until I became an entertainer. I don’t know if it’s the shock of all kind of people coming up to you, or the expectations, but I got to this place where it was hard for me to be in public without feeling watched or really nervous… I’d just meet new people, and I would freak out or have to leave.
André never made a secret of his mental health struggles. (Consider his verse from 1996’s “Millennium,” where he raps: “Me and everything around me / is unstable like Chernobyl / Ready to go at any moment / jumping like a pogo stick… expect the worst / but now I’m pacing / back and forth / inside I’m melting like water on wicked witches / a monster truck came and ran over my picket fences.”) But hearing him speak about it so vulnerably in his normal, human voice belies the gravity of what he was going through.
And it adds important context to the high heels, the ebullient expression, the amplified assertions of originality. His persona — his self — had been designed, painstakingly and purposefully so. What this shows is that the cultivation of coolness, identity, and even happiness is a challenging thing, requiring a sort of courageous and constant conscientiousness. Like many difficult things we normal humans see others executing at a high level, coolness only looks effortless. In reality, it’s not.
In its purest distillation, becoming cool amounts to a kind of self-actualization.
I believe we can all learn from André. Whether you’re a sophomore in high school, a salesperson at Oracle, or a musician struggling for your big break, much of life can feel like an upstream slog necessitating constant, nerve-rattling effort. Coolness — by way of the confidence it inspires — allows one a powerful means of navigating the current.
As adults, we tend to think of coolness as a superfluous trait, a silly thing to want, akin to popularity. But being cool is about so much more than simply being liked. In its purest distillation, becoming cool amounts to a kind of self-actualization; it requires identifying, coming to terms with, and nurturing the aspects of yourself that make you, you. If you do this persistently, over time those propensities, preferences, and idiosyncrasies coalesce into a kind of insulation that protects your true self from the idiot opinions of other people.
It reminds me of the famous Tyrion Lannister quote from Game of Thrones, when he’s chatting up the bastard Jon Snow on their way to the Wall: “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.”
Stankonia plays much like the musical equivalent of Tyrion’s armor: polka-dot-and-plaid chain mail that slowly wraps itself around Big Boi, André, and you, the listener, every time the three of you rap, “Cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm!”
Repeat it enough times, and you start to actually feel that way.
If I hadn’t found Stankonia that dark December night 15 years ago, I likely would have found other means to embrace my creativity and sensitivity and all the other aspects of myself that I now take pride in. My parents, for example, are both brave and smart and original in their own right, and they were there for me.
Still, I’m grateful that Stankonia was a part of my journey. In 2008, after David Foster Wallace committed suicide, I heard my dad, in mourning, express gratitude for the fact that someone like Wallace existed in the first place. That readers had been gifted with his words, which were not easy for Wallace to exhume.
Although he hasn’t passed, I feel the same way about André 3000. What a blessing to have borne witness to Stankonia, and all the art that he and Big Boi gave to the world — in spite of the fact that it wasn’t easy for them to do so. And what a blessing, too, to have had access to a musician whose art not only enlightens and inspires, but catalyzes one to believe in and even come to love their true self.