How deep is your love for this song? Go deeper.
Big Boi and André 3000 of OutKast have taken the "road less traveled" pretty much their entire musical career. Lots of rappers work hard to flaunt a hardcore street image; would anyone ever have heard of 50 Cent if he hadn't been shot in the face? But OutKast has gone the other direction. Dré and Big Boi had the street cred when they first hit the music scene in 1993 with "Player's Ball," but over time they slowly backed away from that standard rap image. As André explains, "we're from the hood, but that's not where our music stayed." While promoting Stankonia
in 2000, André wore a platinum wig and a flowery dress. While it's hard to imagine many other rappers - many other people! - pulling this off, it's nearly impossible to imagine that any other rapper could wear a flowery dress and still be respected by their hip-hop colleagues the next day. But then again, André 3000 is not like many other rappers.
Over time, André and Big Boi have gone in very different directions in terms of their fashion and musical sensibilities. Big Boi has maintained his image as a blunt-smoking, streetwise individual hailing from the Dirty South while Dré has embraced more experimental and eccentric phases. Despite these differences, their history together runs deep. Jonathan Dee masterfully described Big Boi and André's friendship in the New York Times Magazine
: "Recall for a moment your best friend in high school. If yours was like most such friendships, one measure of your intimacy was a willingness to talk unguardedly about your most immodest plans for the future: the band you would form, the business you would start, the moguls you would become, the envy you would inspire, the women you would awe, the cars and houses and toys of every description you would buy, the bond between you so strong that none of these changes would weaken it. Now imagine that every single one of those plans came true." This is exactly what happened for the duo in OutKast. Dré and Big Boi have evolved together as musicians while also growing in unique, separate ways. What is compelling about OutKast, Dee writes, is that Big Boi and André "have somehow contrived to turn this incompatibility to their musical advantage."
André 3000 and Big Boi first met while attending Tri-Cities High School in Atlanta, Georgia. They were hardly friends at first - in fact, they met while competing against each other in a local cutting competition. Somehow, between their physical fights and their rap battles, the two came to gain a mutual respect for one another. "Player's Ball," which was released in 1993, first put OutKast on the map. Big Boi was still in high school at the time, though André had dropped out by that time to focus on his music. In the song's music video, we see OutKast embracing the street thug persona just as most rappers did at the time. The duo's first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
, which featured "Player's Ball," saw OutKast introduce themselves to the world as the ambassadors of Southern hip-hop. This was Southern-fried rap - distinguishing itself from East Coast and West Coast rap with its slow, bouncy beats and a drawling flow in lyric delivery. André and Big Boi then established themselves as a commercially successful and critically acclaimed hip-hop duo with their next two albums - ATLiens
(1996) and Aquemini
And then came Stankonia
in 2000, an album that truly set OutKast apart from other rappers at the time. It was a new style of hip-hop for the new millennium, and it drew heavily from other musical persuasions, blending funk, jazz, hip-hop, and rock in ways that had rarely been attempted before. The self-proclaimed "coolest mother-funkers on the planet" created a whirlwind of a track in "B.O.B.," which combines elements of electro, rock, jungle, gospel, and drum n' bass in such a way as to create something entirely new and unique. The track almost catches the listener off-guard with a double-speed tempo that blasts in at 135 beats per minute. Dré describes this frenzied beat the best in the line, "like a million elephants and silverback orangutans, you can't stop a train." Indeed, it's impossible to stop the moving high-speed train that is "B.O.B." But what exactly is this song about?
That, friends, is the hard part.
The interesting thing about this song is the way in which it has taken on a completely different meaning than was originally intended by Dré and Big Boi, in the wake of the Second Gulf War (Iraq War). It surprises many people to hear that this song was written in 2000 and not 2003. It has led some people to believe that OutKast somehow correctly predicted the course of American foreign policy under the Bush Administration (which hadn't been elected yet when the song was written). That's crazy, of course. In an article that recently accompanied the online music website Pitchfork's list of the top 500 songs of the 2000s (in which "B.O.B." was ranked #1!) the writer makes the claim that OutKast "wound up effectively crafting a fast-forwarded highlight-reel prophecy of what the next 10 years held in store." The phrase at the heart of the chorus, "bombs over Baghdad," "sounded oddly anachronistic in 2000, sadly ubiquitous two and a half years later," the article explains. It's even easier to view André and Big Boi as prophets considering that another track from Stankonia
entitled "Gasoline Dreams," features a searing chorus of André exclaiming, "don't everybody like the smell of gasoline? Well burn, motherf-----, burn American dream." The fact of the matter is that it is practically impossible to hear both songs today without connoting images of the War in Iraq.
It's ironic that a song entitled "Bombs Over Baghdad" came out too late to be directly about the First Gulf War and too early to be about the Second Gulf War. The line that accompanies the chorus of "bombs over Baghdad," "don't pull the thang out unless you plan to bang," could be seen as OutKast's simple and straightforward foreign policy mantra. It could even be interpreted as a dig at the George H.W. Bush administration during the First Gulf War, which succeeded in their intended mission to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but were unable to disable his dictatorial power in Iraq. The aftermath of Operation Desert Storm was that Saddam survived, remained in power, and would repress local rebels in Iraq (an issue that would come back to haunt George W. Bush later in Iraq). Of course, George H.W. Bush was limited in his options considering that the United Nations Security Council's resolution that sanctioned the war only allowed U.S. forces to oust the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. So it could be vaguely plausible to claim that OutKast is making some sort of statement about Operation Desert Storm in "B.O.B."
But still, that would be a pretty huge reach. According to André 3000 himself, he was inspired to use the phrase "bombs over Baghdad" while watching a news report in a London hotel room while touring for Aquemini
. He overheard the broadcaster announce, "something, something and 'bombs over Baghdad.'" According to André, "It sounded good. I knew I could use it somewhere." This description is just a little anti-climactic, right? But is it really true that OutKast only used the line "bombs over Baghdad" simply because it sounded good? It's hard to know whether or not we should take André at his word.
But we can deduce that the news report that André overheard most likely had to do with Operation Desert Fox, which saw the United States and United Kingdom bomb several strategic targets in Iraq in an effort to destabilize Saddam Hussein's grip on power in December of 1998. The strikes were officially made because Iraq failed to comply with United States Security Council resolutions and because Saddam interfered with United Nations Special Commission inspectors. André, critical of the way in which the United States handled this, told Rolling Stone
: "The U.S. was trying to beat around the bush. We was trying to scare them by bombing the outskirts. If you gonna do anything at all, do it. If you gonna push it, push it."
Listening to "B.O.B" a decade into the 21st century, it is impossible not to think about the more recent Iraq War. It is particularly eerie considering most of us probably remember watching news reports broadcasting images of bombs striking Baghdad in the early stages of the war. It's even odder considering the fact that CNN used the instrumental part of "B.O.B." as a musical bed for their early broadcasts during the Iraq War. (For real!) The truth is that OutKast's "B.O.B." will never be the same song in the post-9/11 era that we live in today as it was when it first came out in 2000.
But just for a moment, let's imagine that we are in the year 2000 - 9/11 hasn't happened yet, and the United States military has not made any incursions into Afghanistan or Iraq. Understanding André and Big Boi's actual intentions for "B.O.B." requires an exercise in forgetting.
André's part in "B.O.B." contains an interesting medley of images that slowly unveils the American urban landscape ("in-slum-national underground") at the turn of the century. He describes the difficulties and also the joys that come with living in the ghetto. André's part in "B.O.B." substantiates the New York Times
' characterization of OutKast's music as "gangster rap with a complicated worldview, not just a macho stance." This is a song about living in the hood, but the subject matter doesn't center on riding around in a black Cadillac with 20-inch rims, while donning the freshest, biggest bling. No, instead, André's black Cadillac is filled with a "pack of Pampers." As the Village Voice
argues in one article about OutKast, André and and Big Boi's music is a reminder that there is "more than one way to deal with life's s--t... It's easy to misread, say, Cash Money's paper-chasing imagery as not just a reaction to urban decay, but as the only
one." André's images of the urban environment describe the ghetto in all its complexities. There's the image of a street thug who now has to deal with the responsibilities of being a father ("black Cadillac and a pack of pampers"). Or then there's the image of a man who is about to start processing cocaine into crack in order to make some money ("a scale and some Arm & Hammer"). Then Dré describes the helplessness he feels when he reads about AIDS or cancer. But there are also more light-hearted images that reveals that though the ghetto may not be a great place to call home, it still is home: "weatherman tellin' us it ain't gon' rain/ so now we sittin' in a drop-top, soakin' wet." Through all the difficulties, Dré keeps a positive attitude. He concludes his verse with, "thoughts at a thousand miles per hour/ hello, ghetto, let your brain breathe/ believe there's always more, ahhhh!" And with that comes one collective release.
Big Boi's part works off of André's verse, adding vignettes about the American urban landscape, while also making the claim that OutKast's music surpasses that of all other rappers. Big Boi explains that "we still stay street" and that "big things happen every time we meet." Moreover, "Stankonia
is on ya...pullin' of a belt 'cause a whipping's in order." Big Boi urges the youth to do something positive with their lives; to "make a business for yourself, boy, set some goals/ make a fair diamond out of dusty coals," long before Kanye West ever started rapping about "Diamonds From Sierra Leone
So we can see that if we can look at "B.O.B." without the obvious distractions caused by America's involvement in Iraq, this OutKast track is really about describing the American ghetto and all its hardships and complexities. The closing chorus of "power music electric revival" almost sounds like a plea for urban revival, because as they explain on the track "Gasoline Dreams," "youth full of fire ain't got nowhere to go." Or it can also be seen as a call for an "electric revival" in hip-hop, because as André explained to the Guardian
, "hip-hop don't have no fresh energy. It's money driven, everybody trying to make that check, nobody putting art in their albums any more." Well, OutKast most definitely brought a fresh musical and artistic energy to "B.O.B.," and in the process, called out all of their hip-hop contemporaries who were busy rapping only about their accessories.