Outkast – “Ms. Jackson”

Released: 1.2.01

Peak: #1

As the ’00s began, two of hip-hop’s biggest acts offered more varied outlooks–more variously populated worlds–within the space of their own LPs than you might hear while scanning the entire broadcast spectrum. But while Eminem had to develop a split personality to pick up the slack, OutKast offered two distinct voices from two distinct black men. Unwilling to settle for the hip-hop’s collaborative simulacra–the MC/DJ division of labor, or the superstar and his crew of lackeys–their very partnership suggested the inadequacy of a single perspective.

No wonder the sleeping-in-separate-beds nature of Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below freaked fans out. And no wonder this longstanding hip-hop duo should take monogamy as seriously–or remain as conscious of it difficulties–as anyone outside of Nashville. Couched in the form of an apology, “Ms. Jackson” is in fact a declaration of existential uncertainty, with Andre’s “You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather” cutting as deep to the heart of the song as his expression of regret, and a damn sight deeper than Big Boi’s tirades.

Boi’s verses froth with the self-righteousness of a men’s rights advocate, while accumulating enough detail to justify his frustrations. By documenting the outside voices that intrude into their squabbles–her mother, her friends–he shows that relationships are never the refuge from the public world that we pretend, that some conversations are best kept private. Of course, a real conversation would have offered a female voice on the mic for counterbalance (say, Dre’s ex Erykah Badu, whose mom’s the titular matriarch here). But even if his case isn’t utterly persuasive, it’s the authenticity of his bile, rather than the veracity of his claims, that matters.

In a typical break-up song, that would be the whole story. But Dre’s apologetic chorus sets out the real conflict here: between the hopeful expectations of young love and the subsequent recriminations that time brings. It’s a sentiment echoed in the track’s forward stagger, a backwards-looped cymbal glancing back over its shoulder at “Strawberry Letter 23,” a funereal, piano-plinked wedding march distorted by memory. In a track hooked on mnemonics, Dre’s varied inflection on “forever ever?” burbles up as the most memorable, in its diminution from certainty, to hope, to eventual disbelief.

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