The Number Ones

December 13, 2003

The Number Ones: Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”

Stayed at #1:

9 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Look, I get it. I understand. “Hey Ya!” is one of those pop songs that almost immediately transcended the cultural confines of the pop-song form. The song belongs to every genre and to no genre. In its heyday, “Hey Ya!” got played on virtually every radio station, from R&B to alt-rock to adult contemporary. The single was a world-conqueror, and it represented the ultimate commercial triumph of one of the greatest, weirdest, most fearless rappers ever to do it, even if that rapper didn’t rap a single line on the track.

For these reasons and others, “Hey Ya!” stands as one of the greatest unifying forces that pop music has given us this century. It’s a song that everyone knows, one that virtually everyone likes. “Hey Ya!” is also a song with ideas — about genre, about melody, about relationships, about the whole idea of the pop song itself. Multiple generations regard “Hey Ya!” as an apex moment for chart-pop, a point where everything just came together. So I’m going to come off as an asshole here. It can’t be helped. If you’re here to read a treatise on the greatness of “Hey Ya!,” please look elsewhere. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

“Hey Ya!” is fine. It’s pretty good, even. The song has hooks and energy. It’s simple, and it’s complicated. It’s fun to think about. But I’ve never been able to find much love for “Hey Ya!” in my heart. Some of that is pure sour-grapes bias. I loved Outkast, and while “Hey Ya!” is the group’s biggest hit by far, it’s also an Outkast song in name only. The insane, world-altering success of “Hey Ya!” made it functionally impossible for Outkast to continue as a group, though that train might’ve already left the station anyway. It’s part of my job to review the song that we have, not the song that I wanted. “Hey Ya!” makes that task difficult for me. The song is so overwhelmingly not what I wanted.

On top of that, I’ve always had a problem with the prevailing idea that “Hey Ya!” stands above the other pop music of its moment. When André 3000, the more restless half of Outkast, went off on his own and recorded his own bugged-out experimental funk album, he would often talk about the limiting nature of rap music as it existed in the early ’00s. But rap music was incredible in the early ’00s. The early ’00s, to my mind, stand out as a glittering golden era of Black American pop music. Virtually everything on the radio had as much energy, as many ideas, as “Hey Ya!” André had been an active player in that game for years, and his energy and ideas had made rap bigger and brighter and deeper and better. But when that golden era was at its height, André dramatically announced his exit from the game, and he was lavishly rewarded for leaving it behind. The whole thing has never sat right with me.

In that same sense, the critical consensus surrounding “Hey Ya!” has never sat right with me, either. Amidst this whole run of amazing pop songs, the predominantly white critical establishment went into hosanna mode when André 3000 made a song that essentially flattered certain basic-ass ideas about white rock ‘n’ roll. Critics didn’t have to leave their comfort zones to embrace “Hey Ya!,” and the song became a rallying point for every writer who thought the New Pornographers should’ve been more popular than Usher. None of this is the fault of “Hey Ya!” I’m just saying: I’ve got some baggage with this motherfucking song. These columns are never objective — no reviews are ever objective — but you should know about that baggage before we get into this thing.

A couple of years before “Hey Ya!,” Outkast made history. They capped off a world-historical run of all-time classic rap albums by making their most popular record yet. 2000’s Stankonia found André and Big Boi a little more frayed and stressed-out, but they were still full of ambition, still working toward a common goal. Outkast had already been hugely popular, but Stankonia took them to a different level. The album eventually went quintuple platinum, and “Ms. Jackson,” a conflicted but heartfelt song about love and resentment and acceptance, became Outkast’s first #1 hit on the Hot 100.

“Ms. Jackson” went to #1 at a time when rap songs that didn’t actively chase crossover-hit status almost never topped the pop charts. Outkast didn’t pull the pander-moves that were common in that era, and they succeeded anyway. In the process, they helped shift the balance within rap. A few years later, the genre’s center moved to Outkast’s Atlanta hometown. But the success of Stankonia might’ve also hastened Outkast’s breakup. Even as Stankonia was just coming out, Big Boi and André 3000 were discussing a loony-ass idea. The next Outkast album, they would say, wouldn’t be an Outkast album at all. It would be two different solo albums, packaged together.

The recording industry is structured so that label bosses can talk superstar acts out of goofy-ass ideas like those two solo albums, but Outkast had enough power that they could do what they wanted. Big Boi and André had different ideas that they wanted to explore, but they didn’t want to break the group up just yet. When Outkast worked on their double LP Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the two members would step in and help out on each other’s records, but there’s very little cohesion between the two albums. André and Big Boi didn’t even bother to come up with a single title for the set. The album cover was split right down the middle, with both guys signaling that they were saying different things. André and Big Boi weren’t at odds — they’ve never publicly been at odds — but they weren’t on the same page, either.

At this point, I don’t think it’s especially controversial to say that The Love Below, André’s half of the double Outkast album, is an absolute fucking mess. When he made The Love Below, André was essentially bored with rap, so he barely rapped. Instead, he went off and chased his dreams of Prince/P-Funk-style polyglot artistry. On past OutKast albums, André had been able to pull off something like that. Tracks like “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and “Liberation,” from Outkast’s 1998 masterpiece Aquemini, aren’t really rap songs; they’re deep funk explorations. But those are still Outkast songs, made with the counterbalancing influence of Big Boi, as well as Erykah Badu and the group’s Dungeon Family peers. When André made The Love Below, he didn’t have other voices to help center him, and that hurt the record.

André 3000 has always been a wildly talented rapper. I would’ve loved to hear him rap more on The Love Below, but the lack of rapping isn’t really the album’s problem. The problem is that André was all the way up his own ass, making tedious art-funk that never seemed to have any clear aim. George Clinton and Prince, André’s heroes, could get indulgent, too, but they were always trying to get people to move. When André came out with a drum-‘n’-bass free-jazz version of “My Favorite Things,” he came off like he just wanted people to tell him how clever he was. Before writing this column, I probably hadn’t listened to The Love Below in 15 years, despite trying very hard to like the album when it was new. I was hoping maybe I’d unearth some hidden depths that I’d missed before. Nope. Butt-ass record. A few fun moments stuck in a 78-minute swamp of undercooked soup.

“Hey Ya!” is one of the fun moments. When the song first hit the internet, the music-critic blogosphere — a very new thing at the time — thrashed around to find any kind of comparison point. Did “Hey Ya!” sound like the Flaming Lips? Little Richard? The Beatles? The Knack? Prince? Devo? There wasn’t any right or wrong answer. In different interviews, André would talk about loving the Smiths, or listening to the Ramones and the Buzzcocks while working on The Love Below. Years later, André told Rolling Stone that he’d flown to New York just to see the Hives, the Swedish garage-rockers who were in their buzz-band period at the time. André missed most of the show, but he loved what he saw: “I wouldn’t have written ‘Hey Ya!’ if it weren’t for the Hives.” (The Hives’ only Hot 100 single, 2002’s “Hate To Say I Told You So,” peaked at #86.)

If you squint your ears, you can hear traces off all those other artists in “Hey Ya!,” but the song doesn’t really sound like any of them. “Hey Ya!” is all André. He wrote and produced the song himself, and he played many of the instruments. But there aren’t that many instruments on “Hey Ya!” It sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll song, but it’s almost entirely voice and keyboard, with some strummy acoustic guitar in there. André got help from a few session musicians: keyboardist Kevin Kendrick, organist Marvin “Chanz” Parkman, backup singers Sleepy Brown and Myrna Crenshaw. André played guitar and keyboards, programmed the drum machines, and sang the lead and most of the backup vocals. For every line on the song, André sang dozens of takes, often running his voice through different filters.

At least in its first half, “Hey Ya!” goes over some of the same lyrical ground as “Ms. Jackson.” Nobody really thinks of it this way, but “Hey Ya!,” on paper, is a song about feeling helpless to keep a relationship together. André starts out singing that his baby don’t mess around, but he doesn’t know whether that’s out of love or just fear of being alone. He sings that his parents stuck together but that “we don’t know how.” If nothing lasts forever, then what makes love the exception? Why are we in denial when we know we’re not happy here? But André never sings any of those questions straight-up. He keeps interrupting himself, repeating certain words — “why oh why oh why oh” — until they lose all meaning. Then André comes to a realization — “Y’all don’t wanna hear me; you just wanna dance” — and the entire rest of the song is just party-time catchphrases.

You don’t need me to repeat the catchphrases, right? You already know them. The Beyoncés and Lucy Lius, the Polaroid pictures, what’s cooler than being cool, etc. The sheer nonsense of that part of “Hey Ya!” should be fun — André playing his own hypeman, like some berserk combination of James Brown’s Bobby Byrd and the B-52s’ Fred Schneider. I guess it was fun once? I honestly can’t remember. “Hey Ya!” is a victim of radio’s tendency to overplay the shit out of a few songs, and now I get annoyed every time I hear that whole thing.

Part of the problem is the mere fact that André 3000 can’t sing. He might’ve put tons of different filters on every vocal, but he still sings the whole song in a nasal honk. That matters. When it’s the peak of the deregulated Clear Channel era and all these corporate radio stations are winnowing down their playlists to a few songs that stay un uber-heavy rotation, it really matters.

I guess it’s interesting that “Hey Ya!” toys with the idea of exploring romantic love before just shrugging and hitting the dancefloor instead. Maybe André was making a point about meaningless pop music, right down to the song’s pure-gibberish title. Or maybe André was just chasing a feeling — joyous frivolity in the face of uncertainty. Maybe André hid the song’s point too well. Maybe he was frustrated when the Polaroid-picture bit became the part of “Hey Ya!” that everyone remembered.

A quick aside about that Polaroid-picture bit: At the 2004 Republican National Convention, first daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush quoted that “Hey Ya!” bit during their giggly speech, telling the world that their parents were “actually kind of cool… When we tell them we’re going to see Outkast, they know it’s a band and not a bunch of misfits. And if we really beg them, they’ll even shake it like a Polaroid picture.” The recent past is so fucking embarrassing.

“Hey Ya!” seems to get a lot of bonus points for refusing to sit neatly within any one genre. It’s interesting to hear funky synth-bass in the context of what’s basically a rock ‘n’ roll song — one that got played at the same indie dance nights as the Strokes and the White Stripes and all the other retro bands that were being held up as potential saviors at the time. (I like most of those bands, but the idea that any of them were as exciting as Jay-Z or Missy Elliott or Lil Jon is even goofier in retrospect.)

For me, though, the ideas aren’t enough. “Hey Ya!” is a fun and energetic song, but it’s thin and brittle, too. Maybe “Hey Ya!” sounded like a revelation at first. (Again, I honestly don’t remember.) But within a few months — even a few weeks, honestly — cultural saturation turned “Hey Ya!” into something oppressive and vaguely grating. I never go out of my way to hear “Hey Ya!” now. That song has nothing left to offer me.

But “Hey Ya!” was a phenomenon; there was no escape. At the iTunes music store, which launched two years earlier, “Hey Ya!” became the first track ever to sell a million one-dollar downloads. People were buying the album, too. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below eventually went platinum 11 times over. That number is a little inflated, since the RIAA counts sales of double albums twice. But even if you cut that number in half, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is easily the biggest-selling album in the long and proud history of Atlanta rap.

The “Hey Ya!” video was a big part of that phenomenon. It’s a good video. Bryan Barber, future director of Outkast’s Idlewild movie, essentially restages the Beatles’ foundational Ed Sullivan appearance. This time, though, the invasion happens in reverse, as a band of different Andrés plays to a mob of screaming girls in London. (Ryan Phillippe, in between Igby Goes Down and something called The I Inside, puts on a fake British accent to play the host.) André does a great job acting out all these distinct characters in the band, investing all of them with charm and personality. But I don’t know why Barber kept the screaming sounds going for the entire song; it makes the whole thing almost unlistenable. For that reason, I’m adding an embed of the “Hey Ya!” audio, so that you can hear it without the screaming.

Ever since “Hey Ya!,” André 3000 has gone into some version of retirement. Outkast will appear in this column again, but André will not. After “Hey Ya!,” the next single was “Roses,” the only song on The Love Below to feature Big Boi. The video riffed on movies like Grease and on the idea of a rivalry between Big Boi and André. “Roses” cruised to #9 in the wake of “Hey Ya!,” but it didn’t get any higher. (It’s a 5.)

Even before Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, André was trying to transition into acting, playing a bit part in the utterly forgotten 2003 Harrison Ford/Josh Harnett buddy flick Hollywood Homicide. Over the next few years, André popped up in supporting roles in a few movies — Be Cool, Four Brothers, Revolver. André wasn’t playing leads, but in those scenes, he was almost always the most famous person onscreen. He was a warm, engaging screen presence, but his taste in projects wasn’t great. Those movies are pretty bad. (Four Brothers has its moments.)

In 2006, Outkast got back together for the Depression-era musical Idlewild. I paid money to see that movie, and it fucking sucked. The movie flopped, and so did its soundtrack album. That’s the last Outkast album, and it’s by far the least essential. Idlewild limped its way to platinum, but “Mighty O,” its biggest hit, peaked at #77.

In the time since Idlewild, André has taken occasional acting roles in random-ass movies and TV shows: Charlotte’s Web, Semi-Pro, Jimi: All Is By My Side, High Life. He’s apparently in Noah Baumbach’s forthcoming White Noise; I’m looking forward to seeing that. But movie stardom never happened for André 3000. André hasn’t made any more albums, either, though he’s occasionally toyed with the idea. In the late ’00s, André briefly caught the rap bug again, making fun appearances on remixes of tracks like Unk’s “Walk It Out” and Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s.” André also rapped on John Legend’s minor 2008 hit “Green Light.” (“Green Light” peaked at #24. John Legend will eventually appear in this column.)

André seems to like living a rootless existence, appearing on other people’s songs every so often but never making any of his own. André’s rap verses aren’t all great, but when he raps on someone’s song, it still feels like an event. In the past decade, André has popped up on tracks with an impressive array of collaborators: Beyoncé and Solange, Future and Travis Scott, N.E.R.D and a Tribe Called Quest, Kid Cudi and Vince Staples, James Blake and Anderson .Paak. As I write this, the last thing that we’ve heard from André is the long, loopy verse that he recorded for Kanye West’s 2021 track “Life Of The Party.” For reasons too exhausting to get into here, that track got left off of Kanye’s Donda album, but it made its way into the world anyway. André is great on that song, and it’s one more sign that he could return to rap full-time whenever he wants. He doesn’t seem to want that, though.

Instead, André 3000 seems to be enjoying that Bill Murray existence, transforming himself into an urban legend. You’ll hear stories about people seeing André wandering through a used bookstore, playing a saxophone with a parrot on his shoulder. (I made that up, but you couldn’t tell, could you?) André 3000 doesn’t owe the world anything, and those “Hey Ya!” royalties have presumably made him rich enough that he’ll never have to work again for the rest of his life. Good for him. I never need to hear “Hey Ya!” again, and maybe André doesn’t, either.

GRADE: 6/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: There’s a whole cottage industry of people covering “Hey Ya!” in different styles. The most famous of those is probably the one from the singer-songwriter Obadiah Parker, who sang a slowed-down indie-folk version of the song at an open-mic in 2006. Here’s the video of Parker’s performance, which became an early-YouTube viral video:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2009, soul legend Booker T. Jones released an instrumental “Hey Ya!” cover. On that record, Jones’ backup band was the Drive-By Truckers, with former Number Ones artist Neil Young sitting in on guitar. Here’s that cover:

(Booker T. & The M.G.’s’ highest-charting single, 1962’s “Green Onions,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 track “Hol’ Up,” which samples the count-off part of “Hey Ya!”:

(Kendrick Lamar will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s DJ Mustard sampling “Hey Ya!” on YG’s 2012 mixtape track “Mess Around”:

(As lead artist, YG’s highest-charting single is the 2018 2 Chainz/Big Sean/Nicki Minaj collab “Big Bank,” which peaked at #16. As a guest on Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” YG made it to #6 in 2014. “Don’t Tell ‘Em” is a 10. Mustard’s highest-charting lead-artist single is the 2019 Roddy Ricch collab “Ballin’,” which peaked at #11.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of Miley Cyrus singing a vaguely country-fried version of “Hey Ya!” live in 2014:

(Miley Cyrus will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. All Beyoncés and Lucy Lius and baby dolls — and everyone else, for that matter, can buy it here.

more from The Number Ones

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already a VIP? Sign in.