They were hip-hop superstars and best friends. Then something changed, and soon they could be history.

By Margeaux Watson
Updated May 19, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

André ”3000” Benjamin (better known as Dré) arrives early, alone, and camera-ready for an OutKast photo shoot at an Atlanta studio on a Sunday afternoon in late April. Nearly an hour later, his rhyme partner, Antwan ”Big Boi” Patton, shows up with three assistants, a rack of clothes, a couple of Louis Vuitton suitcases, and shopping bags from Ralph Lauren and Bloomingdale’s. Soon, they effortlessly turn on their famous megawatt charm for the camera — laughing, nodding, and bopping along to the new Gnarls Barkley album. But when the photographer snaps the final frame, Dré swiftly bids adieu to Big Boi and takes off in his black 2006 Range Rover.

These days, it seems like Dré, 30, and Big Boi, 31, are rarely in the same room. As they ready the long-awaited follow-up to their enormously successful last album, 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, their relationship is growing increasingly strained — to the extent that it’s threatening to break OutKast apart. With their new CD, Idlewild (which doubles as the soundtrack to their upcoming Prohibition-era movie musical of the same name), due in stores Aug. 22, can the duo maintain their unusually fruitful collaboration? Or are OutKast on their way out?

Behind the wheel of his car, Dré offers to play Idlewild‘s first single, ”The Mighty O,” a hard-hitting, Cab Calloway-inspired track that lashes out at critics of his singing style. It’s also the rare Idlewild song that features vocals by both Big Boi and Dré, who now exclusively work in separate studios. When the track ends, Dré doesn’t ask or wait for a response. ”Honestly, I was really skeptical about the song,” he says. ”I like what I’m saying in the rap, but it didn’t sound up to par.” Then why put it out? ”Because we needed a song with both of us on it. And people haven’t heard me rap in a while, so I thought it would be nostalgic for them. Everybody around loved it, so I said, ‘F— it,’ and just let it go.”

When Dré and Big Boi formed OutKast 14 years ago in Atlanta, neither would’ve even considered releasing a subpar track. Benjamin and Patton met while hanging out at an Atlanta mall in 1990 and instantly bonded over their shared love of rap and fashion. Soon they were inseparable, crafting tracks together in a home studio and gradually developing their distinctive sound. From 1994 until 2000 OutKast released four increasingly brilliant and successful albums. Their fourth LP, Stankonia (the one with ”Ms. Jackson”), made them pop stars, earning quadruple-platinum sales and a pair of Grammys. That’s when things started to get a little strange. ”Success puts you in front of people who start to dissect and see what you’re made of,” says Dré. ”That’s when the outside [world] starts to dictate or think they know what parts Big Boi and I play in the group, which put a strain on us.”

They had no idea what they were in for. A year after the 2002 Grammys, OutKast released a pair of solo albums as a double CD, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and its massive success quickly made them one of the world’s biggest acts. Dré’s ”Hey Ya!” and Big Boi’s ”The Way You Move” dominated the top two slots on Billboard’s Hot 100 for a record-breaking eight-week run. The album has sold 5.6 million copies and won three Grammys, including Album of the Year. Dré and Big Boi had already drifted apart, now essentially working as a pair of connected solo artists. But the album’s success put considerably more stress on the partnership, and what had once been a joyous, intensely collaborative relationship started to turn cheerless and sour.