17 years ago today, OutKast released "Aquemini." We take a look back for Classic Rotation.
Earlier this year we’ve done Classic Rotations pieces on Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and ATLiens, and today we’re bringing you a reflection piece on Outkast’s third album, Aquemini. The 1998 follow-up to ATLiens was recorded in Atlanta and features a sound along those lines. It still sounds experimental in 2015, and it was completely out there seventeen years ago today, when it was first released.
Last year, Vibe magazine described Aquemeni as, “the most important (if not best) rap album to come out of the Dirty South, the classic Aquemini LP was perhaps the first major wrecking ball to begin destroying the wall of elitism erected by stubborn New York rap purists.” Those are some serious credentials, but if you listen to the album front to back you’ll understand how it had that type of impact.
After the chillest introduction on any rap album ever, things quickly shift gears into “Return of the ‘G’.” The Curtis Mayfield-sampling, Outkast-produced beat plays back-up for Andre and Big Boi’s introspective rhymes. Andre prepped a wordy thesis for the entire album along with a rationale for the duo’s existence:
“Return of the gangsta, thanks ta'
Them niggas that think you soft
And say y'all be gospel rappin'
But they be steady clappin' when you talk about
Bitches, and switches, and hoes, and clothes, and weed
Let's talk about time travelin', rhyme javelin
Somethin' mind unravelin', get down”
Their standard to talk about something ‘mind-unraveling’ is a large component to Outkast’s appeal, and what really helped to put the south on the map. Many of the discussions Outkast held on this album are still relavant today, too. “Synthesizer” touches on society’s favor of synthetic perfection over natural beauty. Andre says, “Give me a drug so I can make seven babies / Pump my breasts up, can you suck the fat up / Please make my life appear.” A rapper saying, “pump my breasts up” is a bit strange, of course, but the commentary, for anyone looking at it on a larger scale, is both valid and valuable.
It isn’t all so serious on Aquemini though, albeit most of the album keeps it really real. On “Da Art of Story Tellin’ (Part 1),” Big Boi drops one of the most epic player verses of all time, giving the play-by-play on how he got brains from a chick named Suzy Skrew in a mall parking lot. Naturally, Andre takes the track to serious town and gives the story of Suzy Skrew’s friend Sasha Thumper, a heroin junkie who dies of an overdose in the back of a bus two months before she’s expected to have a child. It’s a track that demonstrates the very different personalities of Aquemini: there’s Big Boi, an Aquarius, and Andre, a Gemini, flexing their storytellin’ art with different but poignant styles.
The transition into “Da Art of Storytellin (Part 2)” is one of the great one-two punches in rap album history. “Part 1” sonically feels light and airy, but “Part 2” feels like the apocalypse has just begun due to its ominous beat. The duo naturally plays into this feeling as they paint a picture of the world ending. Andre rhymes about the way humans treat Earth, a topic that is even more important today than it might have been back then, what with climate change starting to have some real affects around the globe. “Mama Earth is tossing and turning and that's a sign…Guess she could not take it anymo' / Raping her heavenly body like a ho, coochie so' / From niggas constantly fucking her, never loving her / Never showing appreciation, busting nuts in her face when they done.” Big Boi keeps up, but doesn’t quite exhibit the same strength that Andre did on the prior verse. This is somewhat of a trend in Outkast’s history, but maybe especially on this album. Andre’s vision is insane, proof that he’s one of the greatest of all time. On Aquemini, he makes the strongest performance of his career (as a rapper), and in the process opened the door for any Atlanta rapper that’s ever made it. From Young Jeezy to Raury, anyone from the Dirty South has a little something to thank Outkast for.
The genius is showcased from the “Return of the ‘G’” opener all the way through to the “Chonkyfire” closer, with virtually no weak moments in between. Even “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” is a banger, featuring seven minutes of a souled-out, reggae-influenced instrumental with some thought-provoking spoken word on it. Big Boi may just have his finest moment on the track when he paints the picture of a young trapper who needs to do the right thing for his family. “Can't gamble feeding baby on that dope money,” might just be the greatest advice Big Boi’s given his listeners.
The icing on the cake, so to speak, is the fact that Outkast produced half of these tracks themselves, accomplishing some of the best self-produced tracks in hip hop history. The acoustic guitar-driven “Rosa Parks” and the futuristic “Synthesizer” demonstrate the range of Outkast’s beat-making capabilities. As XXL pointed out when they revisited the album a couple years ago, Andre 3000 actually crafted the beats while Big Boi composed many of the hooks. “Aha – hush that fuss…” has Big Boi’s prints all over it, and while that hit-making sense came into full bloom on Speakerboxxx, Mr. Patton hasn’t really slowed down all that much with the catchy rap tracks.
Aquemini solidified Outkast not only as elite hip hop musicians, but as artists at large. They continued to hone in on their skills, focusing on the elements that make them special with their third album. While many artists run out of steam by the third full-length, Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton worked harder to stand out. That might have outcasted some fans, but those lucky enough to stick around for Stankonia, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Idlewild were treated to one of the most creative runs any rap group has ever had. Feel free to argue that one in the comment section if you’d like, but you’ll seriously have a tough time picking any artist that has gone as deep as Outkast.