The new classic 

The career arc of even great pop groups generally involves an early peak followed by a long, steady cruise downhill. Some groups actually manage to push uphill early on, improving over the course of a few albums, before hitting the slide. But the dip hits, inevitably.

And then there's OutKast. When the duo's third album, 1998's Aquemini, raised the bar on musicality in hip-hop, it seemed the peak had been reached. Three good albums, after all, are plenty in the fast-changing world of hip-hop.

Then came 2000's Stankonia, which pushed Andre and Big Boi simultaneously into territory that was wilder and more-pop friendly, both directions moving the group way beyond hip-hop orthodoxy. Surely they'd reached the summit.

Think again. This year brought an even more audacious, ambitious offering, the sprawling double-solo album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. And, despite its excesses, it's fast on the way to becoming the group's most successful record yet.

Though there are many standouts -- with a range that includes everything from nasty funk to frenetic pop to lounge jazz (and some first-rate hip-hop in there somewhere as well) -- S/TLB doesn't necessarily have better songs than previous OutKast records. It has even been said that the record could've been better had it been condensed into a single disc. Maybe, but as a single disc it would've been less likely to have pushed the group's artistic narrative further.

What is "artistic narrative"? Think about how Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band is probably a more solid record than its follow-up, The White Album, but how The White Album took the Beatles further along its much-chronicled musical journey to expand the boundaries of rock.

And that Beatles analogy is not only convenient here, it's appropriate. We tend to view pop music history as something that happened in decades past -- the stuff of VH1 documentaries and Mojo cover stories, while we wallow in some post-apocalyptic age of Jessica Simpson. But the truth is that OutKast is panning out to be far more significant than anyone -- from L.A. Reid on down -- ever imagined 10 years back. Who knew those A Tribe Called Quest-loving teens would emerge as the most powerful musical visionaries of their era?

And here we are living in Liverpool.

Consider: In the last month or so, OutKast became the first group to score simultaneous No. 1 singles with two different songs on two different charts (pop and R&B/hip-hop). Then it became only the fourth act in pop-chart history (the Beatles, Bee Gees and, uh, Nelly) to land singles in the top two slots the same week.

It's not just about commercial success, of course. But sales surely count in measuring cultural significance -- if only as a marker of how many ears the music reaches.

Further consider: The month of S/TLB's release, OutKast appeared on the cover of a half-dozen major music magazines, and generated far more enthusiasm from critics than any record in recent memory. Andre3000's single, "Hey Ya!," has managed the impossible feat of crossing over on the tightly formatted airwaves, earning heavy rotation on pop, modern rock and hip-hop radio. The duo swept the Grammy nominations with six nods, including the three most prestigious categories (Record, Album and Producer of the Year). And you could bet your retirement account that OutKast will top the album and single lists in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll, the country's largest critics' survey.

Sure, there's a backlash potentially looming. But it's been threatening for years and so far none has arrived. For the foreseeable future, everyone loves OutKast: The kids are making "Hey Ya!" the most downloaded single of the year. Downtown New York record store Other Music, purveyors and tastemakers of the most obscure, underground sounds, lists S/TLB first among its list of the year's top hip-hop, along with the likes of Beans, King Geedorah and Dizzee Rascal (good records that have likely sold fewer copies than S/TLB sold in its first hour). Even your former hippie uncle, who thinks rap music is "just a lot of noise," is quick to add, " ... though I like that OutKast."

So what do you get when you combine astounding commercial success with universal critical adoration, sustained and expanded on a career arc that has risen steadily over the course of a decade? There's only one other precedent. Anyone who knew Dre and Big back in the day, pat yourself on the back. You are a witness to pop history. OutKast is the Beatles of hip-hop.

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