Stankonia is a place, without doubt, but it's scarily, crucially, critically elusive and hard-to-define. It's one of pop's great mental communities; the new ideals for living that have perhaps been pop's greatest gifts to the world, the enrichments with which it marks its era. It makes you wonder exactly what its boundaries and values are; it has me pressing repeat as though I'd only just discovered how; the only word is addictive.
"Gangstar Shit" is the opener, Southern funk at its most aggressively, headily relevant. It's by no means the best thing here, but it is the perfect introduction. It gets you ready for "So Fresh, So Clean", which begins with a startlingly lopsided rhythm, leading you into strikingly elegant pop, shimmeringly electrified R&B. You're hooked; just wondering what will come next.
What does is "Ms. Jackson", a rhythm shuffling about so much that it seems on the verge of turning itself inside out, the driven, propelling reinvention of R&B heading ever further forwards. Musical touches - a brief interjection of Here Comes The Bride, grunting basslines - make it even better.
"Red Velvet" simply carries it on; musically a close relative of its predecessors, its chord sequence slowly rises in a compulsive, direct, organised manner. The idea of Stankonia - as a slowly unfolding story, a community of weird normality and universal pathology which has no map and no specific description, but is nevertheless a clearly-defined mental community - is slowly forming.
"Gasoline Dreams" introduces Rock to the equation, but there's no trace of the usual rap-rock clumsiness; instead it's a fusion at its most effective and subtle, the guitar sounds encouraging and contributing to an air of collective excitement and drive. The following "Snappin' and Trappin'" has a similar air of the whole collective in together, all unified, all aware of where they're going, and the strength and vision of their project becoming more and more obvious.
Then, of course, there's "Bombs Over Baghdad". When I first heard it in August I rediscovered a number of emotions I thought I'd never feel again, more to the point emotions I didn't think it was still possible to feel in this era; basic awe, amazement, rolling around on the floor in wonderment. A sense of distance and intensely geographical greatness; I felt as though this was the first record since Public Enemy's "Welcome To The Terrordome" that could never have been made in this country, the rebirth of pop you could aspire to in your dreams, but that you realistically knew you couldn't create, that made Britain seem again like the dull, repressed nation of, say, 1965. I drew a somewhat misguided distinction between this record's "otherness" and Timbaland's relative "familiarity", memorably suggesting that the latter producer might as well have come from Blandford Forum.
I now realise that was bollocks, mainly (apart from the last bit, which I still adhere to except for the proviso that the same applies to "Bombs Over Baghdad" itself). My mistake was to assume, perhaps because of the song's origins, that its extraordinary, driven, quasi-religious fervour was akin to that achieved on the Bomb Squad's productions for PE, that it was meaningful or somehow politically-motivated. I realise the flaws to my original theory; the song's debt to early 90s hardcore - a vital British working-class music whose brilliance came at least partly from its clearly not caring about any established ideas of "funk" or "soul" - goes beyond the actual production and rhythm, and extends to the motivation behind the chants and the mock-gospel hollers that bring the song to its hysterical conclusion; there's no ideological reason why they're there, no reason other than to whip the audience into a frenzy, to create instant, ephemeral, indescribable excitement and tension. None of which should detract from (indeed, it should enhance) the status of "B.O.B." as, probably, the best single of the year.
After this, "Spaghetti Junction" can only sound relatively mundane; pretty good, brassy, uptown funk, but never anything truly special, one of the very few tracks here you can forget fairly easily.
But "Humble Mumble" intensifies the sense of a journey, a voyage, a quest; the opening railway-train spiel might otherwise sound empty and meaningless, but here it sounds incredibly thrilling, as though we're all invited. We don't know where or how or when, but we know our travels have begun. The song itself - five minutes of delicate shuffling soul lit up by Erykah Badu's contribution, a perfect combination of celebratory party values and contemplative reflection - has taken us somewhere; the rural sounds of birdsong at the end confirm that we've travelled to somewhere much quieter than we were four tracks ago.
"Slum Beautiful" is one of the few moments here that could possibly be described as weak; nothing wrong with the bluesy whine that fuels its funk, but alongside the rest of this album it sounds oddly anachronistic, almost as though they're all in together doing what they want and getting mildly indulgent; their focus has dropped slightly. They're not achieving all they can in more controlled moments; it's merely striking rather than mindblowing.
"Call Before I Come" is the conclusion of everything the album's been working towards; funk at its most uncompromisingly modernistic, the spectre of classicism rotting and irrecoverable. Its spine is brutally electronic, it may not last forever, but it sounds more fearsome than anything designed to sound "authentically" funky ever could. I could probably listen for the 1000th time and still be locating and identifying new sounds here.
"Stanklove" is gospel without religion, a love song without a word intended to be meant; just the drone holding it together. Everything that's come before summarised and reflected upon; digital soul. It doesn't have me suspecting it's stoned, because
Then you've got "Untitled", warping you back to what you've just experienced, the beats drilling into your skull harder than ever before, the emceeing more rushing and breakneck than ever, then a piano riff that is pure 1991 hardcore, the excitement on repeat to fade. And then you feel the urge to return, and it starts again.
It joins Steal This Album (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/thecoup.htm) in the pantheon of great modern P-funk records; it's a concept that carries its weight so lightly as to make you take each song for what it is itself; it's psychedelia of a kind perfectly acceptable to those puritans among us who wish we never even knew what drugs were. Whatever it is, it's pretty awesome.
I still don't know where Outkast live, or exactly what it's like, but I want to share in it.
Robin Carmody, 21st October 2000