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Michael's Number Ones: "Hey Ya!" by Outkast



November 29, 2003


There really is no rationalization behind music genres. Classifying songs in different genres can often be tedious and possibly patronizing. Just look at the controversy with Beyonce's recent single "Texas Hold 'Em" topping Billboard's Country chart. Is the song country? Yeah, I guess so. There's certainly influences on the song that people more knowledgeable about country music than me can identify. And she's from Texas, so the idea that she wasn't exposed to country music is absurd. ("Texas Hold 'Em" peaked at #3 earlier this year, and is currently at #25 on my chart. Beyonce will eventually appear in this column.)

In 1995, Mariah Carey was arguably the biggest pop star in the U.S., but she was getting tired of the pop sound she was known for, and recorded a grunge album just for the hell of it under the moniker Chick. It's fascinating to think how this album would've been received, but we'll never know because her label made sure it didn't see the light of day. She instead leaned more toward R&B and hip-hop, which was probably the right move commercially, and we got the awesome single "Fantasy" as a result. (Mariah Carey's biggest hit on my top 40, 2005's "We Belong Together", peaked at #28.)

That's the problem with music genres: once you get put in a particular box, it's difficult to move out of it. Seldom does a song comes along that can fit in almost every box. Yet in 2003, Outkast, and more specifically, Andre 3000, managed to do just that with an incessant earworm of a song that I absolutely could not deny. So much so that it become just the second song on my chart to attain 10 weeks at #1.

Andre Benjamin was born in 1975 in Atlanta, Georgia and after his parents divorced, he was raised by his mother, a real estate agent. Antwan "Big Boi" Patton was born in 1975 in Savannah, Georgia, and his family moved to Atlanta when he was a kid. Benjamin and Patton were high school classmates and would often take part in rap battles in the school's cafeteria.

Eventually, the two connected and caught the attention of Atlanta producers Organized Noize, and would eventually sign with Laface Records, becoming the label's first hip-hop act. The duo initially wanted to call themselves The Misfits, not realizing that the punk band with that name led by Glenn Danzig already existed. They eventually settled on the synonym Outkast.

Outkast released their debut single "Player's Ball" in 1993, and it made an immediate impact nationally, peaking at #12 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and becoming the duo's first top 40 hit on the Hot 100. Their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik peaked at #20 on the album chart. "Player's Ball" feels like pretty standard mid-90s hip-hop, but it was enough to get the duo's foot in the door. The success of the album meant they were given more leeway to make the kind of music they wanted to going forward.

I'm not a big enough fan of hip-hop music to speak intelligently about it's evolution and trajectory. My sense is that during the 1980s and early 90s, the artists within hip-hop were trying desperately to bring the genre to the mainstream because they knew that music about the Black experience in America would struggle to gain acceptance amongst white audiences. Hip-hop was treated more as novelty than as a legitimate art form by the mainstream during this time.

My sense with most art genres is that it's only when an artist is true to themselves that they can become successful, and possibly lift up others in similar positions. If it's obvious you're playing to the middle of the road, that's all anyone will see you as: just a bright yellow line. So on Outkast's second album, 1996's ATLiens, the duo started to refine their image and sound to who they were. They wore more eccentric clothing and experimented in the studio, rejecting samples in favor of original beats. This led to the album being an even bigger hit, going all the way to #2 on the album chart. The first single from the album, "Elevators (Me & You)", became the duo's biggest hit yet, reaching #5 on the R&B chart and #12 on the Hot 100.

Outkast's 1998 album Aquemini continued this momentum, even though its biggest hit, "Rosa Parks", only got to #55 on the Hot 100. People were starting to realize that Atlanta was much a center of hip-hop as New York and Los Angeles were. The next decade would be the most fruitful for southern hip-hop; Ludacris, T.I., and Lil Jon, all Atlanta natives, would all have massive hits during that span, but none of them probably would've broke through if Outkast hadn't laid the foundation.

(As a lead artist, Ludacris' biggest hit on my chart, 2005's "Number One Spot" peaked at #23; as a featured artist, he got to #11 on Missy Elliott's "Gossip Folk" in 2003. T.I.'s biggest hits, 2008's "Whatever You Like" and the Rihanna-collab "Live Your Life", both peaked at #14.)

It was on Outkast's fourth album, 2000's Stankonia, where the duo broke big. That album is a stone cold classic, and the second single from the record, "Ms. Jackson", went all the way to #1 on the Hot 100. The song is tender and weird and really different from a lot of what hip-hop sounded like at the time. I must have been tripping at the time; it only got to #13 on my chart in early 2001. Perhaps that was because I only heard it on top 40 radio, and not hip-hop radio, where the song was much more abundant.

Still, they were definitively on my radar at this point. When they released a greatest hits compilation at the end of 2001, the promotional single "The Whole World" got all the way to #5 on my top 40. It only reached #19 on the Hot 100 and #8 on the R&B chart.

After the success of Stankonia, Benjamin, by this time now known as Andre 3000, wanted to pursue a solo project. Big Boi, too, recorded some tracks on his own, but the two were going down different paths. While Big Boi's songs were more bass-heavy and hip-hop-centric, Andre 3000 was being influenced by pop, jazz, and funk music. The result was Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a double album that was technically an Outkast album, but in reality was two solo albums for the price of one.

Singles from each half of the album were released simultaneously in advance of the record. On Andre 3000's side, "Hey Ya!" was the lead single. "Hey Ya!" was inspired much more by punk and alternative rock than hip-hop. Andre 3000 plays an acoustic guitar on the song, which drives the rhythm throughout.

Lyrically, the song seems to be about committing to a relationship. Andre 3000's narrator is struggling with his feelings for his partner; he's unsure of the reasons she's staying in the relationship. "My baby don't mess around/Because she loves me so, and this I know for sure/But does she really wanna/But can't stand to see me walk out the door?" It's basically a meditation on what it means to commit forever to someone despite the inevitable lows of the relationship. "If what they say is 'Nothing is forever'/then what makes, then what makes, then what makes/then what makes, what makes, what makes love the exception?"

I don't know how much the depth of the song resonated with listeners at the time, or even with me. I just knew the song was fucking undeniable. Once I heard it, there was no going back. I needed to hear the song as often as possible, and radio stations were more than happy to accommodate. At that time, the song was as close to a viral hit as was possible. Everyone knew the song, and I can't recall anyone disliking it with any intensity.

The line "shake it like a Polaroid picture" even managed to temporarily revive the fortunes of Polaroid, which had declared bankruptcy only two years prior. Even though shaking a Polaroid photograph could actually damage the image, the company wasn't going to let the moment pass them by. You might be able to make the case that the Fujifilm Instax camera wouldn't be nearly as popular, let alone exist, if this song was never made. I was just getting into photography during this time, and am passionate about photography today. To think that a pop song might have altered the course of the artform's history is really interesting to think about.

If you remember this song, I don't have to tell you how ubiquitous it was. It was played on pop, hip-hop, alternative, even adult contemporary stations. Once it got to #1 on my chart, I wasn't gonna get tired of it easily. It was only the second song after Lifehouse's "Hanging by a Moment" to spend at least 10 weeks at #1. For context, in over 20 years that followed "Hey Ya!", only three other songs can claim that feat.

"Hey Ya!" actually made it to #16 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart; unfortunately, that seemed to cause a trade-off for hip-hop audiences because the song only got to #9 on the R&B chart. It was pop radio where the song reigned supreme, topping the Hot 100 for nine weeks.

In the meantime, Big Boi's lead single from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a jam in it's own right. "The Way You Move" is a slinky, sexy joint that showcased the direction Big Boi wanted to go in. It too topped the Hot 100, albeit for only one week, and got to #2 on the R&B chart. On my chart, the song topped out at #5.

By this point, Outkast had enough critical and industry credibility that the album was gonna do big business despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of collaboration between the two members. It debuted at #1 on the album chart, and went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. One more single from the album, "Roses", from Andre 3000's half, made my top 40. The song is technically a proper Outkast song since Big Boi features on the bridge, and it peaked at #7 on my top 40 in June 2004; it got to #9 on the Hot 100.

As a group, Outkast never reached the heights they achieved with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below again. Their next album was the soundtrack to a 2006 musical movie called Idlewild. The film only pulled in $12 million at the box office, and though the album debuted at #2, it quickly faded from memory. I remember how little of a deal the album felt like when it was released, and I can't recall any songs from it.

Outkast hasn't released any more music since then. The duo have reunited for a few music festivals here and there, most notably Coachella in 2014. But for all intents and purposes, they've gone their separate ways musically.

Big Boi released his first proper solo album in 2010, and two more after that, which got their share of attention. For me, however, his most notable work came when he collaborated with alternative duo Phantogram on the project Big Grams. The alternative hip-hop project released a self-titled EP in 2015, and the song "Lights On" got to #7 on my top 40. (Phantogram will eventually appear in this column.)

If a brush with alternative rock seems out step for Big Boi, consider this.  In 2023, when Kate Bush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, her presenter was none other than Big Boi, who claimed she was his favorite artist, introduced to him as a teenager by his uncle. I think that was really cool. (Kate Bush's 1985 all-time classic, "Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)", made my chart in 2022 and peaked at #6.)

As for Andre 3000, he appeared every now and then as a featured artist on other projects, working with Beyonce, Frank Ocean, and Kesha, among others. On my chart, his only other appearance came on the John Legend track "Green Light", which got to #11 in 2009.

In 2023, he released his first solo album, a new age jazz album titled New Blue Sun, which showcases his flute-playing abilities. The curiosity around the album and its verbose track titles let it do decent business. The 12-minute track "I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a 'Rap' Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time" became the longest song ever to chart on the Hot 100 when it got to #90 after the album was released.

Maybe Andre 3000 and Big Boi were just too weird in their own rights to keep going as Outkast, even though they seem cut from the same cloth. Rarely do the weird ones shine the longest, but they definitely tend to shine the brightest. If most hip-hop artists were the kids starving for attention in school, then Outkast were the artsy ones with streaks in their hair who didn't give a damn what you thought about them, making them cooler than anyone else. I don't think we'll see them again in this column, and that's a fucking shame.


Here's the late Sam Lloyd as Ted Buckland performing a cover of "Hey Ya!" on a 2009 episode of Scrubs:


Linkin Park's silky, brooding masterpiece "Numb" peaked at #2 behind "Hey Ya!".

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