The past few years have ushered in a golden age for hip-hop, with a new breed of visionaries taking the music in a thousand new and exciting directions. But where most of these acts come from a creatively burgeoning underground, OutKast has its roots in gangsta rap, which views radical new directions with distrust and views deviance from gangsta-rap orthodoxy as an ideological betrayal. Just ask Dr. Dre, who endured a serious backlash after attempting to abandon the genre with 1995's ill-fated Aftermath. But the members of OutKast have always been Southern hip-hop's biggest iconoclasts, and if Andre 3000's '70s-thrift-shop-on-acid wardrobe didn't alienate gangsta purists, 1998's wonderfully spaced-out Aquemini certainly did. That album raised expectations to almost unattainable heights, but OutKast's new Stankonia actually tops it in terms of ambition, skill, and sonic and lyrical weirdness. Following the obligatory intro, Stankonia begins properly with "Gasoline Dreams," an explosive bit of eloquent provocation that would make Public Enemy proud: "Don't everybody like the smell of gasoline? / Well, burn motherfucker burn American Dreams!" Stankonia doesn't let up from there, taking listeners on a mind-boggling tour of "the place from which all funky things come," a utopian ideal (like George Clinton's Mothership) far from the poverty, racism, and misery of everyday life. Many rappers derive inspiration from Clinton, but OutKast has constructed its own far-reaching and experimental mythology, drenching its surrealistic, Southern-fried flows in brilliantly executed funk, blissful soul, rattling live drums, spacey synthesizers, and psychedelic guitars. The first single, "B.O.B.," amply demonstrates the pair's unique alchemy, capturing the sugar-rush giddiness of Aquemini's "Rosa Parks" while morphing at regular intervals, boasting not one but two of the year's catchiest hooks. The second single, "Mrs. Jackson," tops even "B.O.B.," painting a vivid and empathetic portrait of messy relationships complicated by self-interest and familial dysfunction. Elements of OutKast's gangsta past remain, making for weird, contradictory moments, with mature, sensitive songs ("Mrs. Jackson," "Toilet Tisha") sharing space with regressive throwbacks like "We Luv Deez Hoez" and "Gangsta Sh*t." But Stankonia's contradictions help make it unforgettable: The duo refuses to be classified or reined in, to choose between anger and contentment, melody and noise. In its messy brilliance, OutKast has created a hip-hop Sign O' The Times, a messy, vital classic and a major step forward for both its members and hip-hop as a whole.