OutKast's 'Aquemini': 20 years later
Updated: May 22
When you have a genre as dynamic as Hip-Hop, artists will come and go by the minute and it's easy to get lost in the whirlwind of face tattoos and rattling hi-hats. Sometimes it's nice to take a step back and remind yourself of how we got here and as anybody who has spent more than 5 seconds around me knows, I never hesitate to bring up one of my favourite groups of all time when it comes to Hip-Hop and that is none other than OutKast. Big Boi and André 3000, yes the very same pair that brought 'Hey Ya!' and 'Ms. Jackson' to the LCR are without a doubt one of the greatest gifts to music of the century and on the 20th anniversary of their magnum opus Aquemini, I thought it would be a great excuse for me to nonsensically rave about them for a page or two while also looking at exactly what makes this album so resonant with today's listeners.
On September 29th 1998, André Benjamin and Antwan Patton released Aquemini as the third studio album under the OutKast name and it remains (in my view) to be the most focused and fleshed-out OutKast experience to date. The name is a combination of 'Aquarius' and 'Gemini', the star signs of both Big Boi and André 3000, signifying the importance of the album, as if the it's the product of a higher power, maybe this is why myself and many other regard this album as some kind of religious text. While I'm obviously being hyperbolic and not trying to compare either members of the group to Jesus Christ, there is a reason why the album is held in such high regard and a lot of that has to do with how well it holds up, 20 years later.
The subject matter of the Aquemini ranges from growing up in Georgia to fictional fables about drug abuse in a way that is not only catchy, but engaging. The opening track is very much based within the climate it was released as OutKast come back fighting on 'Return of the "G"', boldly dismissing any claims that they might be falling off. It's important to note that this song came out after the deaths of both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, an event which people at the time cited as the "end of Hip-Hop", in light of this, the song was important not only for OutKast but for the genre as a whole. Both Big Boi and 3K use their verses to simultaneously brag about their status while also mocking hyper-masculinity within rap, making use of all the stereotypical motifs of 'gangster rap'. The main motivation for this song's existence comes from the 'softer' stance from André 3000 on previous album ATLiens that caused many fans to question the integrity of the rapper. While this was taking place in 1998, this is a problem that still resonates today as rappers are criticised for not being 'hard' enough. Thankfully artists like Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean are helping to do away with this image of the 'hard' rapper by showcasing their vulnerability at the forefront of their music.
Diving back into Aquemini, the next track 'Rosa Parks' still remains as one of the groups biggest achievements as the song combines a crucial subject matter with one of the catchiest hooks ever written. The group likens their rise to fame to the Rosa Parks movement in 1955 telling other rappers to "move to the back of the bus", this poignant and somewhat comedic line allows the group to keep important issues in the seams of their songs while also letting people bob their head along to the infectious hook. The song also includes one of the strangest musical breakdowns in OutKast's discography that sounds more akin to a hoe-down than the usual scratch-fest, making it truly one of the best and most interesting songs the group have put out.
Speaking of which, I want to talk next about the title track 'Aquemini' and I know I've been pretty hyperbolic so far but I do genuinely think this is the best song OutKast have ever put out and subsequently one of my favourite songs of all time. In terms of production, it's immaculate and one of the cleanest sounding songs to grace my ears with its beautiful bassline that rolls behind the simple but smooth drum pattern. Atop this, Big Boi and 3K get introspective, discussing their future as a group stating that "heroes eventually die" in a song that is sombre in both it's lyrics and it's sound. The duo make use of immaculate word play throughout the track as well as an insane rhyme scheme by André that is shown to full effect in the video below by Genius. The song's profound message about the mortality of the gangster rapper is refreshing by today's standards as our favourite artists that seem to be on top are passing away, a sobering reality shown to the surface by 'Aquemini'.
The next track is brought to life by a Frankenstein-esque sketch that then transitions into 'Synthesizer', yet another song with a bold, if a little unconventional, message about the increasing use of synthetic products over their natural counterparts. I don't even think I need to point out how ahead of its time this song is as it deals with issues of dehumanisation and genetic modification, not the usual topic for a hip-hop track. The next two tracks 'Slump' and 'West Savannah' are both Big Boi solo tracks as they focus his youth and his years of drug dealing. The messages in these songs are not all that new to modern hip-hop fans, however it's the delivery of Big Boi and featured artists Backbone, Cool Breeze and Sleepy Brown that bring the tracks to life with the latter of the two produced by Organized Noize to lay one of the nicest backing beats of the whole album. Over this cloudy instrumental, Big Boi talks us through his upbringing, a tale of disassociated parents and drug dealing, something that is still relevant today no matter where you look in the world.
The next two tracks 'Da Art of Storytellin' (Pt. 1 & 2)' are somewhat iconic to OutKast fans as the duo depict a pair of stories about fictional women they grew up around. Both characters conceived in the two part epic, 'Suzy Screw' and 'Sasha Thumper', represent metaphors for 2 of the things that the pair grew up around, sex and drugs. Big Boi and André use these fictional characters to present the damage these two things can do do peoples lives if they let it take control as the first part of the story is laid out over a frantic but controlled beat produced by Mr. DJ, perfect for storytelling. However as the song transitions into it's second part the beat spirals out of control into manic chaos, this, combined with the overly-distorted vocals makes this second half abrasive and hectic. The lyricism by André and Big Boi reflect this as they scale the narratives from Pt. 1 up to 11, taking the stories of 'Suzy Screw' and 'Sasha Thumper' up to apocalyptic proportions. With lines like 'Mama Earth is dying and crying because of you' it seems like this pairing of songs form a profound statement about our self-destructive tendencies, one that concludes in a biblical destruction of the Earth, once again, not something that you see in Hip-Hop all that often. The power of these songs back to back is unmatched and it remains one of the greatest pieces of storytelling in rap to this day as it's influences can be seen from Immortal Technique to Kendrick Lamar.
After the dark and grimy 'Mamacita' comes the legendary 'SpottieOttieDopalicious' (don't worry about it, I don't know either) which holds one of the most iconic melodies in all of Hip-Hop. If you can't recall it right now I'm sure it will come back to you as the impeccable horn melody has resonated through music for decades. From Beyoncé on 'All Night' to Joey Bada$$ on 'Devastated' these horns have managed to float their way into the cracks of the 21st century as they remain to be one of the most memorable sounds in Hip-Hop. The song itself is the perfect interpretation of a casual drive about town, as the horns remain one of the more uplifting sounds of the album, bringing an energy and an air of triumph that comes few and far between on Aquemini, providing a stark contrast to the next track 'Y'all Scared', an unrelenting powerhouse of song in comparison to it's predecessor. The next track represents everything that listeners at the time wanted out of OutKast, pure hard rap. Featuring 3/4 members of rap group Goodie Mobb, the track is your classic 90's gangster rap track but André still manages to thrown in some important messages as he uses the 'scared' motif to address how America is 'scared' to talk about their drug problem. The disturbing message is brought to light when André states that America's drug issues "Spread to white and got everybody's undivided attention". This clever wordplay may seem like a comment on America's cocaine and crack boom in the 80's & 90's, however it also refers to the fact that people only begun to notice the problem when it affected white people, something that, i'm sure I don't need to mention, is a common occurance when looking at poverty within the U.S.
After a brief interlude about prison life on 'Nathaniel', Aquemini only gets more politically charged on the patient epic 'Liberation'. The song focuses on the primary theme of freedom in all it's forms. Instrumentally, the song is a slow, piano-led ballad that serves as one of the most emotional songs on the album next to the title track. While it may seem lavish to us listeners, Big Boi, Erykah Badu and Cee-Lo Green's verses highlight the darker underbelly of fame and how they feel trapped in a cycle of sacrificing everything for the sake of music. This poignant message glides over the jazzy instrumental that builds and builds into a beautiful climax underneath an exceptional verse by Big Rube tying all the themes of freedom and oppression into the wider context of racism in America, something that i'm sure I don't need to point it's relevance today. After this emotional ride, we are treated to the closing song, 'Chonkyfire' a strange and distorted song that serves to hint at the sound that the duo will go on to perfect on their next album Stankonia. The unconventional, guitar-led instrumental is strangely hypnotic and it's influence can be heard in the work of Mike Dean with artists like Kanye West and Travis Scott, who make use of these distorted and abrasive guitars to great effect within their recent work, see Travis Scott's '90210' for an example of this.
As an album closer, 'Chonkyfire' sets OutKast up to be the tour de force that they have become, finishing the album with the mic drop that is "The south got somethin' to say/ That's all I got to say" as they go on to release another classic after this in Stankonia. Now this is all well and good on paper and you might be thinking i'm being a bit over the top with all the praise I've been throwing but it's how Big Boi and André 3000 construct this album that makes it so special. The sounds and rhyme schemes spread across Aquemini can still be heard today no matter what avenue of music you look down. Like Idris Elba, this album has only gotten better with age as it's messages are just as poignant and powerful in 2018 as they were in 1998, so if there's any time to start listening to OutKast, the 20th anniversary of Aquemini is it, provided you can look past the off-putting cover art.