Less than three months ago, Atlanta outfit Outkast played its first full-length show in a decade at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The set – analyzed by thousands in absentia via live stream – was less than universally praised, with questions raised about the duo’s rapport, setlist selection, and Andre Benjamin’s at times visible discomfort onstage. Some of the criticism was valid, but on the whole the backlash seemed to speak to the impossible expectations of on-demand nostalgia culture, with fans expecting two idiosyncratic artists to somehow reignite their delicate creative alchemy on a dime, and not understanding why a man who hadn’t graced a stage in years might be a bit frazzled to see 70,000 people staring up at him on his first time back.
In any case, given a few extra months to work out the kinks, the group’s Saturday night set at Staples Center was a different animal entirely. Playing a remarkably similar setlist with remarkably different results, Outkast headlined the BET Experience’s rap-centric bill by cramming exactly two dozen songs into 90 minutes, all of them essential in one way or another.
Perhaps most importantly, the oft enigmatic Andre 3000 was no longer the sullen figure who sheepishly paced the Indio stage with his back to the crowd last April. Decked out in a garish platinum blonde wig and a jumpsuit bearing the text “Ninjas Kill Me,” Andre once again fully inhabited his role as the Generation X Sly Stone, mugging for the stageside cameras, dancing with the backing band and punctuating lulls in the show with high-pitched squeals and low growls. His camouflaged compatriot Big Boi remained the stately pro of the two, grounding his bandmate’s eccentricities with pure meat-and-potatoes technique.
Opening with “B.O.B.,” which predates hip-hop’s current vogue for European dance music elements by at least a decade, and closing by inviting Houston majordomo Bun B out for a run though “International Players Anthem (I Choose You)” — essentially the “Hey Jude” of dirty-minded Southern rap — the twosome showcased a catalog of unimpeachable breadth and depth.
Though all the pop hits were properly accounted for, it was the more marginal material that spoke the loudest. A four-song medley of tunes from the group’s 20-year-old debut album, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” tapped into a primal funk vein so deep it was practically asthenospheric. “Prototype” and “She Lives in My Lap” demonstrated just how large a debt depresso-soul singers like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean owe to Outkast. And a best-in-show take on “Elevators (Me and You)” just seemed to sum up everything great about this group: Alternating freely between cosmic profundity and plainspoken bluntness, compositional audacity and singalong simplicity, the song provoked crowd reactions that ranged from the spiritual (a man mouthing along with eyes closed and palms raised ecclesiastically toward the sky) to the profane (two women grinding in the aisles not ten feet away).
Outkast associates Sleepy Brown and Killer Mike made appearances throughout, as did 1980s story-rap legend Slick Rick on, appropriately enough, “Da Art of Storytellin’, Pt. 1.” The solid backing band had its moments to shine, particularly during the horn breakdowns on “Spottieottiedopaliscious.” But the main draw was the lovably mismatched duo centerstage, who finished each others’ lines with casual precision, allowed one another brief solo sets without losing the plot, and at one point pretended to communicate between songs in a gibberish sibling language. Chemistry like this is what allowed Outkast to explore several dozen different genres on half a dozen albums, and it’s something that can’t be feigned – it takes time, and it can’t always be dictated by market demands. Whether Outkast’s return is the start of a new era in their partnership, or simply one last victory lap before calling it quits, it was certainly worth the wait.
After brief, sparsely attended opening slots from Ty Dolla $ign and August Alsina, Rick Ross brought the show to life with a respectable, thoroughly professional performance. However, much like his cinematic soulmate Michael Bay, Ross’ ceaseless bombast became deadening a short while into the set, and he had no other gears to shift to.
Following him, highly hyped Harlemite A$AP Rocky squandered his premium set time with an awkward, sputtering show. While Rocky can be a perfectly charismatic rapper when he’s on form, on Saturday night he seemed to expect the Staples Center to reward him with applause and adulation simply for showing up. When his muddled delivery and ho-hum setlist choices left the crowd unmoved and almost eerily quiet, he responded first with surliness and then with petulance, chastising the audience and refusing to perform his top 10 hit “Problems” after a technical problem botched the intro.