OutKast's 'Aquemini' Turns 20: How They Made One of the Most Well-Rounded Rap Albums of All Time

OutKast's 'Aquemini' Turns 20: How They Made One of the Most Well-Rounded Rap Albums of All Time

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It may be exhausting to recollect a time when OutKast have been underdogs, however again in 1998, two albums into their profession, the duo was nonetheless on the defensive. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and ATLiens have been each well-received upon arrival, with the previous incomes the duo the title of “Best Newcomer” on the 1995 Source Awards and the latter nabbing them a Platinum plaque — rarities for Southern rappers on the peak of rap’s East and West Coast-dominated period. Nevertheless, Big Boi and André 3000 acted as if their backs have been up in opposition to the wall when it got here time to document Aquemini, which was launched 20 years in the past right this moment (Sept. 29). “Even although we obtained two albums,” Big raps on that album’s “Y’All Scared,” “This one really feel like the start.” 

OutKast have been getting pigeonholed — by a New York hip-hop institution that deemed them “nation,” by conservative rap purists who thought André was getting too bizarre, by gangster rap followers and Atlanta locals who cherished the hard-partying pimps of the primary album however weren’t down with the extra meditative ATLiens. Retorts to those misconceptions abound on Aquemini. “You would possibly name us nation, however we's solely Southern,” Big Boi raps on “West Savannah.” “Them n****s that suppose you comfortable and say y'all be gospel rappin'/ But they be regular clappin' whenever you speak about bitches, and switches, and hoes, and garments, and weed,” André says on “Return of the ‘G.’” “Is he in a cult? Is he on medication? Is he homosexual?,” he continues, mimicking his critics. Big Boi even vents a couple of near-perfect evaluation (four.5/5 mics) in The Source on “Skew It on the Bar-B”: “I gotta hit The Source/ I would like my different half mic/ as a result of that Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was a basic, proper?”

They responded by making one of the vital adventurous but well-rounded rap album of all time. Aquemini finds Big and Dre going off in 1,000,000 instructions directly however proving past a doubt that every path comes from the center. It’s an album the place a Georgia pastor’s harmonica solo exhibits up seconds earlier than Staten Island’s Raekwon steps to the mic, the place a jazzy, nine-minute meditation on “Liberation” and lure music forebearer Cool Breeze coexist, the place boom-bap and futurism aren’t at odds, the place lighthearted “story raps” out of the blue turn into life-and-death parables. As they are saying on “Skew it on the Bar-B,” OutKast made an album for everybody from “Old-school gamers to new-school fools.” 

Their first precedence was convincing these old-school gamers who knew OutKast finest as “two dope boys in a Cadillac” that they hadn’t gone too far into outer house. On an Aquemini skit, the duo parodied a prevailing opinion in Atlanta on the time: 

Most of this criticism got here down on André, who, in response to Organized Noize’s Rico Wade in an oral historical past of Aquemini, “was already doing bizarre shit” on the time. Said Wade: “It was nearly such as you simply wished to ensure, ‘Goddamn, you continue to there proper?’ And he let of us know he was nonetheless there on this one.”

The particular “one” to which Wade was referring was “Return of the ‘G,’” the very first tune on the album. On it, André presents a Catch-22: He hates rapping about weapons as a result of it feeds into gangster rap clichés, but when he as an alternative offers us “Somethin’ thoughts unravelin’,” folks will suppose he’s gone comfortable. “‘Return of the Gangsta' was attempting to present them a way of, 'Hey, I'm nonetheless an everyday particular person,'” Dre mentioned in that oral historical past. Instead of delivering the pulpy, sensationalized gun discuss of gangster rap, Big Boi and André present how and why violence creeps into in any other case peaceable lives. Big Boi actually simply desires to take his sneakers off and watch his daughter blow bubbles, however he raps that he’s nonetheless “keen to rob steal and kill something that threatens mine.”

This push-and-pull between street-rap tropes, creative ambitions and on a regular basis life programs via Aquemini, making for a potent but cohesive mixture of head-blown experimentation in addition to a number of the hardest Southern rap so far. Most of Big Boi’s aggression stems from threats to his status and wealth: “Many fights needed to be fought, G/ For a n**** to experience these Vogues;” “We labored for all the pieces we have now and gon’ stick up for one another;” “I gotta defend my identify and what we fought for” — all that is far cry from a veteran rapper claiming to nonetheless be within the streets. In ‘98, Big Boi was extra prone to “bust you within the mouth” with a refrain than his fist, to “bust raps like D-boys bust gats” reasonably than pulling an precise set off. On Aquemini’s hardest tracks, the extra streetwise half of OutKast speaks with authority, not conceitedness. 

Despite seeming like a course correction from ATLiens’ artsier aesthetic, imposing proto-trap tracks like “Slump” and “Y’all Scared” don’t negate what most individuals on the time would name OutKast’s “acutely aware” facet. Big and Dre rap about their lived surroundings, not outer house, with notable empathy. On “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” Big Boi spins a narrative a couple of younger father attempting to go legit however failing drug exams. “So now you again within the lure — simply that: trapped,” he concludes. Even on “Slump,” sandwiched between hardened verses about dealing from Backbone and Cool Breeze, Big focuses much less on glamorized the drug commerce and extra on the trivialities of cash administration: leechlike hangers-on, baby help, checking accounts, an previous kitchen job. For an album as virtuosic, bizarre, and eclectic as Aquemini, its lyrics are broadly accessible.

But it’s nonetheless a very bizarre album. Throughout, André and Big Boi speak about breaking freed from custom, typically utilizing the civil rights motion (specifically, “Rosa Parks” and “Liberation”) as a metaphor for doing so. They embody this freedom by roping in country-fried sounds on “Rosa Parks”; an electronic-leaning, George Clinton-featuring spasm of technological paranoia on “Synthesizer”; a darkish, abrasive story concerning the apocalypse on “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2)”; a spoken-word epic on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”; and a few bad-trip psychedelic rock on “Chonkyfire.”

That shouldn’t all match beneath the identical roof, but it surely does because of how rigorously every style tour was constructed. After ATLiens far outperformed OutKast’s debut album, debuting at No. 2 on the Streets Talkin 200 after Southernplayalistic peaked at No. 20, LaFace Records gave the duo a a lot increased price range, which allowed for extra studio time. “We might actually simply reside at Doppler Studios,” mentioned Omar Phillips, a percussionist who labored on Aquemini, in that aforementioned oral historical past. “We have been facet by facet, camped out, sleeping within the studio for weeks at a time,” Big Boi agreed.

In addition to hiring a variety of session musicians, Dre and Big additionally stepped up their manufacturing sport as effectively. Every observe on their debut was produced by the Organized Noize workforce; on ATLiens, 5 of 15 tracks have been credited to OutKast. Yet by Aquemini, the duo produced half of the album’s 16 tracks. Had OutKast assembled their stylistic departures in a slapdash method or outsourced them to producers much less in tune with their imaginative and prescient, they might have stood out like sore thumbs. But handled with simply as a lot care as say, Big Boi’s very traditional-sounding, autobiographical “West Savannah,” a freaked-out tune like “Synthesizer” sounds simply as near the group’s coronary heart. 

It’s not simply the music that strives for freedom. Many of Aquemini’s strongest lyrics preach a message of individuality and self-determination. “To have a option to be who you wish to be/ Is left as much as me…,” Big raps on “Liberation.” “Still standin’ for somethin’ whereas y’all fallin’ for nothin’,” pipes in Goodie Mob’s Khujo on “Y’all Scared.” Much extra metaphorically, road poet Big Rube disses “Cowardly lions by no means defyin’ the jackals of Babel/ Runnin’ with they pack, tail between your legs,” taking clear goal at much less adventurous rappers. André, turning issues about his personal look on its head on the title observe, questions if “each n**** with dreads” is woke, and if “each n**** with golds” is a blight on society. “Don’t get caught up in look,” he concludes. 

Almost with out exception, it’s André who takes the lead on Aquemini’s furthest departures from OutKast’s roots. An anecdote in Ben Westhoff’s e book Dirty South describes him enjoying round with pitch-correction gear as Big Boi warned him that it could alienate the group's viewers. It’s straightforward to think about many such moments of Big tempering Dre’s experimentation, because the distinction between their two creative personas is on the core of the album’s id and branding. The album’s title is a portmanteau of the duo’s astrological indicators, and regardless that they declare that “horoscopes typically lie” on the title observe, every member’s inventive position corresponds neatly with the final attributes ascribed to Aquariuses (André) and Geminis (Big Boi). The former is progressive, unique, unbiased; the latter is adjustable, versatile enthusiastic. Or, as a promo sticker on the album’s cowl put it, they have been “the participant [Big Boi] and the poet [André].” This dichotomy permits for André to exit on a wing and for Big Boi to maintain up, or for Big Boi to stay to his strengths and for André to raise them. They’re good foils for one another, and Aquemini finds every of them stretching their distinctive imaginative and prescient out right into a taut reference to the opposite, simply earlier than the breaking level. 

Aquemini is the bridge between the pop brilliance of Stankonia and the Southern soul brilliance of ATLiens,” mentioned frequent OutKast collaborator Killer Mike in an interview 5 years in the past. It actually was a second of transition within the group’s personal trajectory, because it marked the primary time that Big and Dre appeared like fully separate, typically contrasting people. This would ultimately come to a head 5 years in a while Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, when every made their very own solo album and packaged them collectively, however on Aquemini, no matter pressure existed between group cohesion and vibrant individuality was productive: ATLiens’ sound is simply too constant all through to ship the surprising thrills of Aquemini, but Stankonia’s is so eclectic that it loses Aquemini’s heat, beating pulse.

The rap universe is affected by albums that show tight, well-contained creative visions and ones that try slightly little bit of all the pieces. Finding a stability between the 2 is a rarity, and 20 years on, Aquemini remains to be a mannequin for learn how to pull it off.