The Number Ones

February 14, 2004

The Number Ones: Outkast’s “The Way You Move” (Feat. Sleepy Brown)

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

I’m glad it happened for Big Boi. When Outkast members André 3000 and Big Boi ventured off to record their own respective solo albums, the balance of power within the duo was not even. André 3000 was always the Outkast member who commanded the most attention. André was the flamboyant one, the one who talked about wanting to transcend rap itself, the sex symbol who wore blonde wigs and spiked Road Warriors shoulderpads. Big Boi is a weirdo, too, and he’s also great songwriter and a crispy, idiosyncratic rap stylist. Within the context of Outkast, though, it was too easy to overlook Big Boi. Big Boi was less likely to turn himself into a spectacle than André, more likely to rap about earthier concerns like weed and sex.

Speakerboxxx, Big Boi’s half of the massive-selling Outkast double CD Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, was always going to come off as something slighter and less groundbreaking than André 3000’s The Love Below. André was off on a post-genre spirit quest, and his indulgences demanded analysis. Big Boi, on the other hand, just made a great rap album. Speakerboxxx is about 50 times more listenable than The Love Below, and it would probably be remembered as a minor rap classic if it didn’t have to stand in the shadow of André’s album. But Big Boi didn’t have a “Hey Ya!” That’s not Big Boi’s fault. Nobody else had a “Hey Ya!”

The first two singles from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, “Hey Ya!” and Big Boi’s “The Way You Move,” both came out on the same day. “Hey Ya!” immediately emerged as a colossal crossover smash, but “The Way You Move” was a huge hit, too. Both songs raced up the Hot 100, and “Hey Ya!” won out, spending nine weeks at #1. For eight of those nine weeks, “The Way You Move” was right behind “Hey Ya!,” sitting at #2. For the longest time, it seemed like “The Way You Move” would go down as a footnote in the “Hey Ya!” saga. But when “Hey Ya!” finally slipped from the #1 spot, “The Way You Move” was right there, and Big Boi’s song got a week at the top.

“The Way You Move” never had the same command over the popular imagination that “Hey Ya!” still claims; at this point, “Hey Ya!” has seven times as many Spotify streams as “The Way You Move.” But Big Boi still landed a #1 hit of his own, and nobody can take that away from him. In writing this column for the past few years, I’ve said again and again that nobody deserves a #1 hit; the pop charts are not a meritocracy. I believe that, and I also believe that Big Boi deserved his own #1 hit. (I contain contradictions.) So I’m glad that Big Boi gets to arrive in this column on his own. It feels right.

Whereas André 3000’s The Love Below was a self-produced auteur move, Big Boi went to his community when he recorded Speakerboxxx. Big Boi’s album has appearances from tons of his rap peers: Jay-Z, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Killer Mike, various Goodie Mob members and Dungeon Family affiliates. André 3000 produced three of the tracks on Speakerboxxx, which mostly sounds like the logical continuation from Outkast’s previous album Stankonia. And on his own #1 hit, Big Boi teamed up with Sleepy Brown, his favorite non-André collaborator.

Patrick “Sleepy” Brown, five years older than Big Boi, is one third of Organized Noize, the production trio that discovered Outkast and got them signed to LaFace in the first place. Like Big Boi, Sleepy was born in Savannah, Georgia, but he mostly grew up in Atlanta. (When Sleepy Brown was born, B. J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” was the #1 song in America.) Sleepy Brown grew up around music; his father Jimmy Brown was the lead singer and saxophonist of the Atlanta funk band Brick. (Brick’s highest-charting single, 1976’s “Dazz,” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

Sleepy Brown met his Organized Noize compadres Rico Wade and Ray Murray sometime around 1990. The three producers worked together in a studio in Sleepy’s mother’s basement; this was the Dungeon that gave the Dungeon Family its name. A whole collective of massively creative young Atlanta rappers coalesced around that studio, and Organized Noize helped shepherd them along. When Outkast released their debut single “Player’s Ball” in 1993, Sleepy Brown sang the hook in a breezy, confident falsetto. He sounded a bit like Marvin Gaye, a bit like Curtis Mayfield, a bit like his father. (“Player’s Ball” peaked at #37.)

Organized Noize found their way to #1 before Outkast did. The trio produced and co-wrote TLC’s 1995 chart-topper “Waterfalls.” By the time Outkast took “Ms. Jackson” to #1 almost six years later, Big Boi and André 3000 were mostly producing themselves. But Organized Noize remained in the fold, and Sleepy Brown even sang backup on “Hey Ya!” Big Boi and Sleepy Brown always had an easy, relaxed chemistry, and you can hear that chemistry at work on “The Way You Move.”

“The Way You Move” is an appealing swirl of Black pop genres from across history. The booming, minimal 808 beat owes everything to Miami bass, the horny and propulsive dance music that was really the first style of Southern rap that ever found a national audience. When Big Boi is rapping, “The Way You Move” mostly stays in that Miami bass mode. When Sleepy Brown’s chorus kicks in, the track suddenly turns into widescreen technicolor. We hear backup harmonies, squelchy keyboard tones, slithery neck-slides, and bright Earth, Wind & Fire-style horn-stabs. Sleepy Brown’s own multi-tracked falsetto is rich and buttery, and it stands in stark contrast to Big Boi’s stuttery, playful rap style. By the time the song ends, Big Boi pretty much just turns the track over to Sleepy Brown, who gives it an ornate, psychedelic soul-funk ending.

The skeleton of the beat for “The Way You Move,” the tss-tss-boom of that 808, comes from co-producer Carl Mahone, otherwise known as Carl-Mo. Carl-Mo had been part of Outkast’s extended circle for a while, and he’d co-produced the Stankonia deep cut “Gangsta Shit.” At the time, though, Carl-Mo was probably best known for a pair of tracks that applied Miami bass aesthetics to sugary, pop-friendly R&B. In 1996, Carl-Mo co-wrote and co-produced “My Boo,” the only single credited to a group named Ghostown DJs. Great song. (“My Boo” initially peaked at #31. In 2016, after the song soundtracked a viral running-man challenge, “My Boo” climbed as high as #27.)

In 1997, Carl-Mo also remixed “Swing My Way,” a single from the R&B duo KP & Envyi. Carl-Mo’s remix juiced the track up with some of that Miami bass boom, and the remix turned the song into a hit. (The remix’s quasi-rapped verses were written by a pre-fame Ludacris.) KP & Envyi disappeared from the world after “Swing My Way,” and they never released an album, but “Swing My Way” peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.)

Carl-Mo’s whole style, that Atlanta take on Miami bass, had faded from the pop charts by the early ’00s. On “The Way You Move,” though, it still sounded fresh and contemporary, especially when paired with the orchestral funk splendor of that Sleepy Brown hook. Big Boi co-produced “The Way You Move” with Carl-Mo, and the final track features a bunch of different musicians. Debra Killings, TLC’s longtime backing vocalist, played bass, and the track also features the work of Hornz Unlimited, a horn section that played on a lot of Outkast and Dungeon Family tracks.

“The Way You Move,” much like “My Boo” or “Swing My Way,” is a party song. It’s mostly about Big Boi and Sleepy Brown watching women dance and then trying to sweet-talk those women into coming home with them. But “The Way You Move” also has a bittersweet tinge to it, mostly thanks to the moment when Big Boi addresses Outkast breakup rumors: “We never relaxing, OutKast is everlasting/ Not clashing, not at all/ But see, my n***a went to do a little acting.” That line bums me out now, but it’s hard to be too sad while “The Way You Move” is playing.

I love the way Big Boi dips and weaves through “The Way You Move.” Big Boi’s two verses on the track are nowhere near his best, but they’re a nice example of how he’d mastered his whole conversational motormouth flow. Big Boi raps fast on that beat, but he never sounds effortful. Instead, he darts into the pocket and then back out again, nudging the beat around like a cat with one of those tiny toy mice. “The Way You Move” follows “No Diggity” as the second #1 hit to include the word “eargasm,” and Big Boi helpfully clarifies its meaning: “Now you cumming out the side of your face.” Here’s how Big Boi describes the track’s bass sound: “Trunk rattlin’ like two midgets in the backseat wrassling.” Until I wrote about Ludacris’ “Stand Up” and this song, I don’t think I fully understood how much early-’00s Atlanta rappers loved using the word “midget.”

Those lines — about Outkast’s status, about the bass sound, about whatever’s happening to the side of your face — aren’t really the point of “The Way You Move.” Instead, the song mostly exists so that Big Boi can talk about girls dancing. He was looking at them, there there on the dancefloor, and now they got him in the middle, feeling like a man-whore. Big Boi likes big girls; he wants to study how you ride the beat, you big freak. He also likes skinny-slim women who got the cameltoe within them. He wants to hear these women tell stories about their boring exes, and then he wants to make moves like a person in jail — on the low, ho. None of this is revolutionary, but few strip-club rappers bring Big Boi’s level of gentlemanly charm or Sleepy Brown’s old-school soulful squeak. “The Way You Move” is just a fun song. It moves.

After “I Like The Way You Move,” Big Boi never got anywhere near #1 again. He only released one more single from Speakerboxxx: “Ghetto Musick,” an excellently propulsive 3000 production. It didn’t make the Hot 100. Later in 2004, both Outkast members rapped on “I Can’t Wait,” a song that Sleepy Brown recorded for the Barbershop 2 soundtrack. “I Can’t Wait” peaked at #40, and it’s the highest-charting single for lead artist Sleepy Brown.

Soon after Speakerboxxx, Big Boi started putting together a label called Purple Ribbon and assembling a roster of artists like Sleepy Brown, Killer Mike, Bubba Sparxxx, and a just-starting-out Janelle Monaé. (As lead artist, Janelle Monaé’s highest-charting single is the 2015 Jidenna collab “Yoga,” which peaked at #79. As a guest, she’ll eventually appear in this column.) The Purple Ribbon label fell apart after a couple of strong compilations and after the absolute banger “Kryptonite” peaked at #35 in 2005. That year, I saw Big Boi and some of the Purple Ribbon roster play a very late-night CMJ show at the Knitting Factory, and the man’s energy was tremendous. I saw Big Boi play solo sets at festivals later, and he was always great, but that Knitting Factory show was special.

After the whole fiasco of Idlewild, the movie and the album, Outkast gave us one last classic when they rapped on UGK’s “International Players Anthem (I Choose You),” a song that I love deeply and without reservation even if Pimp C outrapped both André and Big Boi. (“International Players Anthem” peaked at #70.) Big Boi acted in a few movies, and I liked him as the bad guy in ATL. He guested on other people’s tracks, climbing as high as #23 on the Brooke Valentine/Lil Jon collab “Girlfight.” And he tried to get his first proper solo album finished, which turned out to be a difficult proposition.

The first single from Big Boi’s solo album was “Royal Flush,” which featured André 3000 and Raekwon and which was incredible. That song came out in 2007, but the album got hung up in record-label limbo, and it finally came out as Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty three years later. I loved that album, and I raved about it in Pitchfork. Last year, my friend Ryan Dombal decided to re-rate that album for this goofy-ass Pitchfork feature, and he dropped it down from a 9.2 — I didn’t pick that number — to a 7.7. That was weird! It’s still a good album.

By the time the album finally came out, Big Boi’s pop momentum was long gone. None of the songs from Sir Lucious Left Foot made the Hot 100, and Big Boi has mostly spent the past decade easing into elder-statesman status, making pretty-good records that don’t venture too close to the zeitgeist. In 2014, Outkast reunited to headline Coachella and to play a victory-lap reunion tour that didn’t include any new music. André seemed to be doing the whole thing as a favor to Big Boi, and he didn’t give off the vibe that he was too invested in the whole enterprise.

Big Boi’s whole existence seems pretty chill these days. In 2019, when the Super Bowl came to Atlanta, Big Boi was a guest during the halftime show from future Number Ones artists Maroon 5. Big Boi did a brief marching-band version of “The Way You Move,” and it was good to see him, even if it seemed like he just was there because most prominent rappers were staying away from the NFL during the height of the Kaepernick issue. Last year, Big Boi and Sleepy Brown put out a long-promised collaborative album. I wouldn’t expect Big Boi to return to the pop charts anytime soon, but who knows? After what happened with Big Boi’s friend and hero Kate Bush this year, anything seems possible.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Nelly’s 2004 Snoop Dogg/Ronald Isley collab “She Don’t Know My Name,” which opens with a sample of Big Boi saying “boom boom boom” on “The Way You Move”:

(Nelly has already been in this column a bunch of times, and he’ll be back. Snoop Dogg will eventually be in the column, too. As a member of the Isley Brothers, Ronald Isley’s highest-charting single is 1969’s “It’s Your Thing,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely random cover of “The Way You Move” that Kenny G and former Number Ones artists Earth, Wind & Fire released in 2004:

(Kenny G’s highest-charting single is 1987’s “Songbird,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. You can buy it here, you big freak.

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