Screengrab from "Hey Ya!" by Oukast.
How “Hey Ya!” Became André 3000’s Unofficial Swan Song
In an essay by Ryan Gaur, we explore Andre 3000's "Hey Ya!", as the grand finale of Outkast's search for the spotlight and what the record says about 3K's relationship with love, music and fame.
André 3000’s “Hey Ya!” is the quintessential pop hit. In 2003, its breezy instrumental, energetic performance and catchy hook hit the bloodstream in an instant rush of musical bliss, grabbing your auditory cortex by the neck and squeezing out rivers of dopamine. Born to be a worldwide hit, the DNA of “Hey Ya!” is designed to give every human being something to lock into, whether that’s the song’s danceable beat or more emotional lyrics under the surface.
Today, “Hey Ya!” has come to be known as a happy-sounding song with darker lyrics, the surface-level reading of the track giving the story of a once-promising relationship faltering over time. But the song is also significant as the last time André 3000 ever took the musical spotlight. Despite two more Outkast albums — Speakerboxxx/The Love Belowand the underrated Idlewild — and a sprinkling of features through the years, “Hey Ya!” was his goodbye to the limelight. On “Hey Ya!” — which was released on August 25th, 2003 — not only does André say goodbye to a relationship with a woman, but he also says farewell to fame and music.
Separate's always better when there’s feelings involved.”
“Hey Ya!” is a song about losing faith; and after 2003, André 3000 seemed to lose faith in the power of the artform.
“Hey Ya!”’s outlook on relationships is bleak. André looks upon the excitement and hope of early relationships as juvenile, and, with his more jaded outlook, comes to the conclusion that “Separate's always better when there’s feelings involved.” As people change, those things that brought them together to begin with become warped, which is painful. This leads André to believe that the relationship wasn’t worth getting into to begin with.
The passage of time is a key factor in what André laments on “Hey Ya!” As he sings “Thank god for mom and dad for sticking to together ‘cause we don’t know how,” one comes to realize that André sees love as something with an expiration date. For André, to love means to have your heart broken, so what’s the point in falling in love in the first place?
That dreamy-eyed affection coming to a gut-wrenching end that André details in “Hey Ya!” can easily be mapped onto his career as a musician. The innocence of creating art out of passion, developing into creating art for a label, leading to creating art for a hungry fanbase of millions distorts one’s relationship to the thing they initially fell in love with.
Though André has stated that “Hey Ya!” “isn’t biographical — it’s more like tangents based on real life — the story of the song is still founded in real emotion. André had been in love with the idea of being an artist since his youngest years, at first yearning to be an architect. He wanted to do something that married the freedom of drawing with the financial stability which a craft like architecture brings. By finding his way to success in music, André achieved that dream, but while having to contend with fame and controversy.
Acts of defiance
OutKast’s artistic reverie of crafting songs beloved by boatloads was often intruded upon by a label thrust on them by the hip-hop community. The simple act of being from Atlanta formed a villainous persona for OutKast in an industry dominated by coastal heavyweights unwilling to accept new sounds from the South. This was evident early in Outkast’s career; at the 1995 Source Awards, the duo won Best New Rap Group to a chorus of boos, birthing one of André’s most famous quotes, “the South got something to say.”
#TBT That time Outkast got booed at the Source Awards and the statement for the South!!!🐐www.youtube.com
It was a hardcore act of defiance against an industry system designed to keep people like André from occupying stages like that. This moment, and Outkast’s continued brilliance, helped to reform hip-hop as a genre as Southern styles came increasingly to the forefront. Defying the system is heroic, but is exhausting, and Outkast became known for the narrative around them, and not just the music.
André stepping back from music feels directly inspired by a career spent defying narratives. When talking about “Hey Ya!” André told VH1 “I think it's more important to be happy than to meet up to somebody else's expectations or the world's expectations of what a relationship should be,” something that directly maps onto the suffocating expectations placed on André as a musician.
“Hey Ya!” was one last act of defiance. André wasn’t just in the business of reframing what's expected from a southern rapper, but from a hip-hop artist in general. Rappers didn’t sing, and critics of hip-hop as an artform didn’t think that rappers had that capacity. Even the track’s engineer, Pete Novak, was taken aback by André’s approach to the song. "I didn't think he was a singer," Novak told MTV. "You know of André and Outkast for rapping. I had the reaction the public probably had later."
A career as an artist is one of freedom, until it evolves into a career as a celebrity, at which point your job is to live up to some ephemeral public expectation. In 2019, André spoke on the Broken Record podcast about the heavy weight that comes with releasing music. “Any little thing I put out... people nitpick it with a fine-tooth comb,” he explains to host Rick Rubin. “And that's not a great place to create from. And it makes you draw back." An association with fame and fans caused something of an artistic identity crisis within André, removing him from any desire to pick up the mic again.
This theme arrives with clarity in “Hey Ya!” through a single line spoken before the second hook, “ya’ll don’t hear me, you just wanna dance.” This line encompasses a culture of music consumption where it's treated as microwavable, a stint of joy never to be looked at critically. André’s music is either being stripped of its value by people skipping over its meaning for the sake of something to listen to and simply fill space, or it's over-analyzed to the point where André loses all control over his creation.
André didn’t see the reasons he loves music reflected in his audience and therefore lost faith in its ability to communicate something deeper. As he told Rick Rubin, he still “tinkers” with music, expressing himself in that pure way, away from audiences, in full control over his narrative.
Goodbye to fame
Outkast - Hey Ya! (Official HD Video)www.youtube.com
Today’s musical landscape, in some ways, proves André’s decision to step back to be a good one. We live in a culture where an artist can spend months, maybe years, crafting a perfectly sequenced album, only for consumers to talk about it in the first two weeks after its release before moving onto the next big drop. Music is best appreciated over time, but there simply isn’t space to give it that respect.
Certain few artists, your Kendrick Lamars, your J. Coles, are seen as worthy of analysis. People pick apart their songs, song names, album titles, tweets and interviews to the point where these artists decline to engage with the spotlight until it's time to promote their new release.
When we beg for new music from André 3000, are we just begging for another thing to consume? Are we going to get that fabled solo album and throw it away after a couple weeks? Are we going to treat him as human and not a content-producing machine?
“Hey Ya!” was André’s goodbye to fame. It brought him enough riches as to where he can spend 20 years in retirement, but he looked into the future of this relationship between creation, fame, and fans and decided that he didn’t look happy there. As a community, hip-hop fans never really got over André walking out on us. We loved his singular vision for music, and this he knew for sure, but André wasn’t about to spend his whole life releasing music, even though at one point it was the love of his life. Nothing lasts forever, so what makes love the exception?
Ryan Gaur is a film, music, and football writer based in Birmingham, England.
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