Last Friday saw the long awaited reunion of one of the most important hip hop duos in the genre’s long history, as Outkast returned to headline the first night of this year’s Coachella festival in California.
The much-anticipated live performance marked the first time the pair had taken the stage together for 12 years and given the classic back-catalogue at their disposal, it promised to be an event that would live long in the memory; it was, yet for all the wrong reasons.
Having undergone a self-imposed hiatus following the release of their last album Idlewild in 2006, Andre 3000 and Big Boi embarked upon solo careers, the former delving into acting for a while and the latter continuing to make music. For fans of the group whose popularity had grown exponentially with the release of each of their four studio albums, it was a painfully public separation, with the genre noticeably poorer from their absence.
Big Boi pushed ahead with plans to release a solo album, with the much-delayed Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty eventually arriving in 2010 and a second effort, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours, released in late 2012. Musical output from Andre 3000 wouldn’t be heard again until 2007, when he gradually began to reappear on an array of remixes, his unique and seemingly effortless flow elevating each song on which he featured. These tantalising glimpses of the duo’s capabilities not only served to frustrate Outkast’s fan base, but also acted as fuel for them to informally lobby for a reunion every opportunity they got. No matter what the project either was involved with, no matter their trotting out of the same non-committal replies, the question kept on coming, would we ever see Outkast reunite again?
Putting Outkast to the side for a minute, that relentless question is probably worthy of closer examination; just why do music fans obsess over the possible reunions of bands that are no longer together? No matter what genre you look at, no matter your preference of music, when asked, nearly everyone has a name of a musician or group they wish would grace the stage once more. It’s an inevitable outcome for those who love music and it’s all down to the inherently human trait of pining for the past. To truly enjoy a piece of music you have to be emotionally invested in it and everyone has songs and albums that become synonymous with the happiest, formative years of their lives, just as we all have songs for the shitty times too. Our need to see groups such as Outkast reform comes directly from our Gatsby-esque desire to repeat the past over again, to relive happy memories and indulge in feelings that art has the power to reawaken within us. Yet as Fitzgerald’s novel warned, you can’t always repeat the past and one of the main reasons why is what makes music so special in the first place; emotion.
Though some musicians could be accused of releasing output that is cynically constructed and hollow in soul, most invest themselves in their craft and evolution is a natural part of the journey. Rather than ask Andre 3000 and Big Boi when Outkast would return, we should instead have spent longer to contemplate why they left in the first place.
By the time they released their third studio album it was clear that creatively the pair were moving in different directions and at different speeds. Releasing Speakerboxx and The Love Below as solo albums, but insisting it was still under the guise of Outkast was the flashing red light and the albums’ contrasting content only serve to emphasise such anxieties. These were two very different personalities yearning for two different sounds and whilst Speakerboxx/The Love Below proved a huge commercial and critical hit, it foreshadowed the hiatus that would soon follow it.
Outkast’s performance at Coachella signalled the first of a series of festival appearances the pair are set to make this summer, returning from the wilderness to mark the 20th anniversary of the group’s first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik , put out in 1994. The tour announcement came out of the blue and caught many avid fans that’d all but given up hope of a reunion off guard; surely it was too good to be true? Judging from the pair’s first performance in over 12 years, it may well have been.
Though Outkast’s return to the stage at Coachella was hindered by an array of technical problems, with poor sound quality and the windy weather hardly ideal, the most noticeable problem was the setting. As one fan put it, “this was not the crowd for Outkast to break 20 years worth of ice on”; they simply weren’t up for it.
Starting like a house on fire, the duo begun their set with the frenetic ‘Bombs over Baghdad’, 75,000 people stirring in excitement for the much-anticipated reunion. But only 20 minutes into the set it became clear that the excitement was short lived and a tired Coachella crowd wasn’t composed of those who’d truly appreciate what they were witnessing on stage. The apathy amongst the crowd soon spread to those on stage with Andre looking progressively more disillusioned with the whole scenario the longer the set went on. Beckoning to the crowd he frequently asked “Are y’all still alive?”, eventually switching to the forlorn “y’all are tired, I know”. Though Big Boi remained professional throughout and attempted to interact with the often lifeless audience where and when he could, Andre couldn’t hide his disappointment, shuffling across the stage with all the enthusiasm of a slug. The set list included deep cuts from their discography that ardent fans across the web were overjoyed to see, yet aside from the notable crowd pleasers such as “Hey Ya”, “Ms Jackson” and “Roses” most songs were met with a modest ovation at best.
The most tweeted about moment of this year’s festival, Outkast’s performance attracted outrage across twitter where passionate fans bemoaned the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm and appreciation of how lucky they were to witness the duo’s return. Coachella’s become an easy target over the past few years, with inflated ticket prices preventing many hip hop fans from making the trip to California to attend the festival. The demographic of those in attendance becomes more akin to Glastonbury every year, the event regarded by many wealthy festivalgoers’ as a fashion statement, with music merely providing an entertaining distraction from instagram and binge drinking. This wasn’t the setting on which to stage such a meaningful comeback; especially considering the tour’s sudden announcement raising questions over what motivated it in the first place. As the Coachella crowd grew wearier and Andre along with them, the space between the two performers became increasingly noticeable, the dungaree clad 3000’s apologetic “thanks for coming out, I know it’s kind of weird, 20 years later and shit”, doing nothing to reassure those who’d doubted a harmonious return.
Whether the group’s reunion was forced by the lucrative possibilities of a festival tour or out of a genuine feeling of obligation to their fans is still unclear. And given the numerous dates on their summer schedule, things could easily improve with better crowds to ease the obvious anxieties of the brooding Andre Benjamin. Yet if the 20th anniversary tour does come to an end with the disparity between the two still as glaring, we shouldn’t blame the undoubtedly talented duo from Atlanta, Georgia. For the return we’ve all clamoured for will serve as yet another reminder of our inability to recapture the past, both for those on the stage and off of it.