Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.”
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we’ll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we’ll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature’s archives here.
In October 2000, Outkast released its fourth album, Stankonia to universal praise from fans and critics alike.
And, though Andre 3000 and Big Boi had scored a number of hits since joining forces to form Outkast in 1992, make no mistake: it was Stankonia‘s second single that turned the pair into superstars.
When “Ms. Jackson” was released in January of 2001, it quickly shot up the charts, earned the duo its first Billboard No. 1 single, and, later, earned the twosome a Grammy for “Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.”
Following the album’s release in October, Outkast’s Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin explained to Sonia Murray of his hometown paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the etymology of the album’s strange title. Said Benjamin: “Stankonia is this place I imagined where you can open yourself up and be free to express anything.”
That mindset is something he really took to heart when he began work on the album in 1999 — the same year he split with his girlfriend of three years, Erykah Badu. Needless to say: There are multiple instances from Stankonia — and on “Ms. Jackson,” in particular — that lend some insight into Dallas’ reigning musical Q.U.E.E.N. and her family.
When “Ms. Jackson” was initially released, many were quick to assume this apology to the duo’s “baby’s momma’s momma,” was directed at his own baby’s mama’s mama, Kolleen Wright, the mother of Badu. Badu, of course, gave birth to Benjamin’s son in 1997.
And though Benjamin, perhaps, “never meant to make [her] daughter cry,” there’s plenty of evidence that, at least initially, some hard feelings did exist between the two.
Badu’s sophomore album, which was released just 20 days after Stankonia came out, closes with a 10-minute breakup opus called “Green Eyes,” which most agree is obviously about the pair’s split.
Ostensibly, Wright, whose own husband left her when Badu was quite young, would have been able to identify with the pain her daughter was experiencing at the time.
In any case, some reparations were obviously in order.
According to a 2002 interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Craig Seymour, Benjamin explained that his music was a way to tell Ms. Wright — who he famously co-starred with in the video for Badu’s 1997 single “Next Lifetime” — that he was, in fact, sorry for what went down between him and her daughter in a way that he never would have been able to face to face.
“And her mom loved it,” said Benjamin in that interview. “She’s like, ‘Where’s my publishing check?'”
Even with that admittance from Benjamin himself, Badu has never really been quite as forthcoming about the song’s subject. Still, while she didn’t completely own up to being the song’s subject during a 2010 episode of Chelsea Lately, she did divulge that Benjamin’s apology went over quite well with her mother.
Said Badu in that interview: “It was her chance at stardom. She got the airbrushed ‘Ms. Jackson’ shirt, the bobble-head doll. It was on her screensaver. She had the ringtone. That was her chance, so I just let it be.”
But there are plenty of other signs in the song’s lyrics that indicate that Ms. Wright is, indeed, the subject of “Ms. Jackson.” What’s more, there’s plenty else the song can tell us about Dallas.
Take the line “King meets queen, then the puppy love thing, together dream / ’bout that crib with the Goodyear swing,” for instance. The “puppy love” part very well might be a nod to the Puppy Love Entertainment label that appeared on Badu’s Mama’s Gun album — maybe. A better indicator that Badu and her mother are the song’s subjects comes in the “queen” reference to Badu’s “Queen of Neo-Soul” nickname.
The thing about that nickname, though, is that it was never one that Badu particularly wanted. While she ultimately did come to embody that tag, it was originally coined by Badu’s manager as a means to push her debut record.
In the mid-’90s, Badu signed with D’Angelo’s manager, Kedar Massenberg, who then in turn formed his own label and co-produced her debut effort, 1997’s Baduizm, along with help from Philadelphia hip-hop instrumenatlists The Roots.
To be fair, many early reviews of that debut, including this one from Rolling Stone, weren’t quite sure what to make of Badu’s fusion of jazz and hip-hop. More than one review used the same analogy, saying Badu sounded less like Billie Holiday than she did like Diana Ross imitating Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.
By the time Mama’s Gun was released at the end of 2000, though, critics had firmly latched onto the “neo-soul” brand, while simultaneously accepting Badu as the subgenre’s quote-unquote first lady. Take the stark change in attitude displayed by Rolling Stone‘s review of that disc, for example, which further cemented Badu’s queendom: “They would be the reigning couple of black music if only they were still together. Erykah Badu and OutKast’s Andre 3000, who were a pair for the three years leading up to 1999, have created two of the most astounding albums of 2000.”
By the release of 2003’s Worldwide Underground, Badu began to make known she wasn’t completely taken with the “queen” term, even going so far as to include the phrase “Neo-Soul Is Dead” on the album’s sleeve.
Still, it’s a nickname she’s yet to shake even a decade later. Likewise, “Ms. Jackson” wouldn’t be the last time Benjamin referenced his relationship with Badu in song, either.
On Spearboxxx/The Love Below‘s “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete)” in 2003, Benjamin spits a few lines about the pair’s son, Seven Sirius Benjamin, and clears up some rumors about the fact that he is not the jerk Badu was singing about in her 1997 track “Tyrone.”
Sang Benjamin on that track: “The song wasn’t about me and that ain’t my name / We’re young, in love, in short we had fun.”
In 2012, Benjamin brought things full circle during his verse on T.I.’s “Sorry,” in which he offers up another apology — this time directed at Badu herself. To Badu, he raps about how he would have done things differently if he only knew in 1999 what he knows now: “Well, I’d probably do it differently if second the chance / Only if some cool ass older man would’ve let me know in advance / There’s this quarry, that is dug so deep in a father’s chest / When he feel that he’s broken up his nest / And he figured shit he was just doing the best that he could / Which end up being the worst that he could.”
But those weren’t the only amends offered up by Benjamin in the verse: He also rapped an apology to his former rap partner Big Boi, with whom he famously bailed on just prior to a 2006 tour.
If the pair’s announcement this winter that they’ll be reuniting to play 40 festivals over the course of the summer is any indication, the two have most definitely buried that hatchet.
What can we say? Andre 3000 is just really good at apologies.