Each of Atlanta duo Outkast's three previous records refined their Dixie-fried funk a little bit more, but Stankonia -- hard, fast, and chaotic -- is a dramatic leap forward. This is the sound of Prince and George Clinton hooking up with Public Enemy's Bomb Squad for a chitlin circuit tour. Stankonia (“the place from which all funky things come”) is the most ambitious record of the year outside of Radiohead's criminally overrated Kid A. But where that arid album is a self-conscious exercise in alienation, Outkast's seventeen-track, 75-minute electrofunk opus is fiercely engaged. The lead single, “BOB,” may be the most musically bracing moment of the year, its furious booming beat decimating all physical restraint. And its album-opening companion piece, the relentlessly propulsive “Gasoline Dreams,” takes “BOB”'s politically inchoate confusion to the bank. With a Princely guitar riff spiking a deep bass groove, Big Boi (or is that his partner Dre? I can't always tell the difference) spits an angry, defiant chorus: “Don't everybody like the smell of gasoline?/Burn motherfucker, burn American dreams.” But if Dre and Big Boi can't pin down the source of their stress, that just makes the anger sound grounded rather than received. Instead of confidently reciting leftist screeds à la Rage Against the Machine, Outkast sounds rattled by the rush, citing a “youth full of fire, ain't got nowhere to go” and complaining that “the world is moving fast, and I'm losing my balance.”

But those punk-funk anthems aren't even the record's highlights. The infectious “Ms. Jackson” is a conflicted apology to “all the baby mamas' mamas” that builds a dense, playful sound out of drum and bass skitter, stray piano licks, and buried vocals. And the double-entendre “I'll Call B 4 I Cum” harnesses the loopiest, funkiest synth riff since Prince's “Delirious” to a thundering bass beat in a goofball ode to sexual reciprocity. (Inspirational lyric: “No, I don't want to see your thong. I kinda dig them old-school regular drawers.”) If Stankonia is a hip-hop record -- and it certainly is -- it's one that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or the Treacherous Three never saw coming. It's a record that probably has as much in common with experimental rhythmic excursions like Tricky's Maxinquaye and D'Angelo's Voodoo as it does with any previous rap record. Yet it still brings all the commonplace joys of good hip-hop in abundance. Here is a serious and important record that still hues strongly to the Chuck Berry principle of rock and roll: good beat, smart and witty lyrics, soulful vocals.

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Chris Herrington