On the track “Y’All Scared,” from OutKast’s seminal third record Aquemini, Big Boi delivered a declaration of intent: “Even though we got two albums, this one feel like the beginning.” His claim wasn’t superfluous, it was divinatory. This week, Aquemini – a timeless opus that often gets lost in the canon of classic hip-hop records – turns 20. Representing both a career re-start and creative peak for the Atlanta duo, it ushered in a new breed of hip-hop, one where conscious rap could be augmented by spirituality, the boundlessness of space, and sonic experimentation, anchored most effectively by the unrelenting evolution of its creators.
Let’s go back to 1998. Revisionists regard it as “the second-coming of hip-hop”: The bitter West vs. East Coast rivalry had been placated, JAY-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life turned him into a mass market MTV sensation, DMX delivered two No. 1 albums in a year – his brazen swagger seemingly chart dynamite. To the dismay of genre loyalists, grungy, subterranean beats were replaced by a slickly-produced pop sheen.
Hip-hop was no longer a nascent entity but one traversing multiple commercially-viable lanes, outselling every other genre in the country. This meant rap was no longer localized. Pockets of regional talent were now breaking through in a new MP3 age. No longer was hip-hop defined by breakbeats, funk samples, guns, drugs, sex, and violence. Instead, it went macro, and the country’s most enigmatic rap artists came to the fore, punctuated by OutKast’s Aquemini capturing the pre-Millennia cultural zeitgeist.
A rare commercial success in its own right, the album repackaged hip-hop as something tethered to the roots of black identity, yet simultaneously, it was unlike anything being played on the radio at the time. It was the token album of 1998 for hip-hop contrarians who copped the record because it sounded and felt like ‘real art;’ It felt like enlightenment without the self-aggrandizing and preachy politicking.
Affectionately titled Aquemini — a portmanteau of the duo’s zodiac signs, the Aquarian Big Boi and the Gemini André 3000 – it connoted an immersive escapade juxtaposing two opposing celestial personas. It wasn’t all space-hopping melodrama, however. OutKast ensured their existing fan base would stick around by injecting every track with the earthy, Southern grit that characterized their earlier efforts. They played to their respective strengths; Big Boi was still a proponent of the streets while André’s wayfaring drifter was invoked through his stream of consciousness-style of delivery.
André 3000 was growing into his role as a virtuoso, and OutKast made sure that Aquemini stood apart from its predecessors. The duo were in the mood for raw introspection, with both men undergoing existential changes in their personal lives, paving the way for the soft-psychedelic opener “Hold On, Be Strong,” a track that beams out an astral mantra of self-affirmation while weaving a woozy dreamscape with the same harmonic refrain playing over and over. That narcotic moment is snapped by the audacity of “Return of the ‘G’” – a center piece in a masterpiece. Produced by Southern rap pioneers Organized Noize, “G” was a raw display of molasses-smooth rap, lyrically disavowing the incessant rumor mill surrounding their partnership and André’s predilection for ‘flamboyance.’
On Aquemini, the very concept of duality was the focus of attention. It pushed them to face bracing, uncomfortable truths within their own ranks. Such divided notions as owning the person you grow into with the fear you’ll always be the same are offset by the urban narrative and grounded by a rhythmic exuberance. They broached internal afflictions against a backdrop of incandescent sci-fi funk. Light and darkness, yin and yang. The dichotomy at the heart of Aquemini between “the player and the poet” critiqued the iconoclasm surrounding the central tenets of hip-hop. According to OutKast, the genre could thrive as both a commercially successful entity and one that was free from the shackles of existing tropes. They didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. The fact that Aquemini – at one point considered a fringe hip-hop album – is double-platinum today, is a testament to the conviction of its two members.
OutKast evolved past the expected modes of black expression on Aquemini, an amalgamation of two divergent images, one more abstract (André) and the other historical (Big Boi). On this album, the duo delved into parenthood, racial divides, blacktivism, technophobia, aliens, addiction, and, of course, the decay of the human condition. On “Synthesizer,” they brazenly attack the hauteur of mankind and our exploitation of natural resources in the line “are we digging into new ground, or digging our own graves?” Black men can be self-aware citizens of the earth, too.
They embraced plurality, something hip-hop musicians didn’t have the wavelength to pursue then (and only recently have) with a similar sense of being unrestrained. They were oddities, realists, fathers, and hustlas all at once. In the video for “Rosa Parks,” they subverted hip-hop cues to project a mirror image of black culture, each taking on the other’s ‘aesthetic.’ They balked at the tradition of hyper-masculinity in the genre – instead, they tested and edified the audience with icons of afro-futurism, conveying an alternative to the prevailing black experience.
Aquemini set the precedent for hip-hop to exist not in a static vacuum but in a place where lucid poetry was embellished by a sonic abandon. Long before Kanye West was transcending genres with his outré tendencies, OutKast were cherry-picking from G-Funk, soft-rock, reggae, blues, and yes, space-rap – is that even a genre? OutKast were in a referential mood, drawing from the pantheon of black music history long before Kendrick embraced similar referential prowess on his 2015 effort To Pimp a Butterfly.
The record as a whole was defined far more by improvisation and live instrumentation than programmed beats, borne from a loose jaunt through a ’70s-style jam session with a vast array of colorful musicians invited through an open door policy in the studio. The horn-heavy, freedom-fighting “Liberation” is the prime example of a collaboration between artists at the peak of their powers, creating something that defies classification. The Cee-Lo Green, Erykah Badu and Big Rube-assisted track conveyed a session that was informal and fluid in nature, dripping with verve and vitality, a microcosm of the record at large.
That same track served as an exemplar of André 3000’s avant-garde approach to songcraft, employing vocally-modified singing much to the dismay of Big Boi, who worried they’d alienate listeners if they veered too far from the formula. Typically, André resisted, wanting to broaden their horizons, believing it to be in line with the otherworldly terrains of the record. It was this affinity for risk-taking and an unwavering sense of versatility that ultimately foretold the coming of autotune and the synthesis of vocals in hip-hop, something Kanye exploited to full effect on his polarizing 808s & Heartbreak a decade later. OutKast risked everything on this record, opened themselves up to ridicule, scrutiny, and failure, but what they showed was an unerring trust in each other’s sense of musical inclination. And what they gave the world in 1998, was a manifesto for hip-hop artists to be bold, innovative, and fearless.
The title track foretold the beginning of the end for OutKast. “Nothing is for certain/ And nothin’ lasts forever/ But until they close that curtain, it’s just him and I—Aquemini.” Aquemini was the duo’s strongest showing of the ‘unity through division’ trope, the mercurial hustla working alongside the alien oddity, the creative synergy between them absolute. They would go on to produce their most widely-acknowledged pieces in Stankonia and Speakerboxxx… / The Love Below, but by the time the latter was released, the creative schism between the duo meant two separate records, with two separate soundscapes. On the prophetic Aquemini, an amalgam that denotes the beginning of the end of their unity, André 3000 and Big Boi were two sides of the same coin.
For more like this, read our take on the criminally underrated work of Kelis right here.
- Words: Shahzaib Hussain