Revisiting a Classic: Outkast's Aquemini (1998)
By Jordan Pytosh
Hip hop music is sometimes considered a finite art form, even while the sounds of multiple eras can differ across time. As a genre, a lot of its rhythmic confines are usually associated with a time that fits in with some combination of specific instrumentation, song structure, and sonic landscapes. Considering its long evolution, there still remains a cyclical nature behind the formulaic sound that characterizes not only eras, but also regions, ultimately making certain projects as stand out efforts. With this in mind, Atlanta rap duo Outkast has been able to defy many of the conventions implied by hip hop’s pre-existing forms, specifically the sound of ‘Southern Rap’ of the 1990’s.
However, it did not always constitute this for the well renowned duo, as their first effort Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was still very much a reaffirmation of the then prominent southern sound. The association with northern artists to Southern music was a bouncy sound associated with simplistic lyrics boisterously delivered and bouncy production consisting of fast percussion. Even while Outkast were unique in providing acerbic lyrics backed up by unique flows and a thematic deviation, the duo was still stuck in the aggregation of Southern music that confined artists from bridging gaps in hip hop’s regional divides.
Enter the 1995 Source Awards. With the brewing tension of East Coast and West Coast, Outkast’s victory brought a lot of visceral opposition, as they were generally disregarded as just some Southern rappers. This had changed with Andre 3000’s victory decrees of his disdain for the “close minded folks” and notion that the “South had something to say”, which rocked rap beyond belief. In 1996, after some well received singles, their second album ATLiens proved they were stratospheres away from many other artists in the rap game, at that point transcending the South altogether. Prior, Big Boi had his first child and Keisha Spivey broke up with Andre 3000, making this album a culmination of maturity that shifted the creative process driving Outkast’s music. In reflecting on their sophomore effort, it seems that even this album still had something missing. Their lyrics, production and overall aesthetic had matured and increased exponentially in sheer quality, yet something intangible had been lacking in their work presented to the masses.
Enter 1998’s Aquemini. Armed with a mostly original soundscape, the production on their third album accommodates both rappers’ lyrical exercises with a good set of polarizing beats of Outkast’s discography. Andre’s weirdness had amplified in the public sphere, and Big Boi began to emulate ‘gangsta’ persona he is known for more and more. As a thesis statement for the album, “Return of the G” is an introductory message that spells this dynamic out. While Big Boi certainly was more concerned with Outkast themselves, Andre 3000’s verse is insanely critical of the ‘gangsta rap’ motif associated with southern rap. He denounces his own past to instead look into a shifting paradigm into his own changes, including the break down at the end where all the questions on his personal changes are manifested through aggression and an emotional ascension. As the initial introduction to Aquemini, this track sets off what would become Outkast’s ambitions for the subsequent part of their career.
Unlike the sample-based, minimalist production that made up ATLiens, Aquemini is mostly original compositions, and the songs that do feature samples make beats from very different sources than its predecessors. Instead of a good chunk of soul sample flips and sampled beats, soundtracks, prog rock samples, a Sly Stone break, and Hollywood sound effects are scattered throught the album. A record that stands out from this list is Camel’s 1976 album Moonmadness, that provides the sounds for “Y’all Scared” (sampling “Air Born”) and “Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 2” (sampling “Spirit of the Water”). This record stands out in particular as it was highly different for the time in terms of sampling, overall cementing the album’s more experimental soundscape stand out than Outkast’s southern contemporaries. The two tracks off the Camel album provides a particularly brooding atmosphere to the tracks on the songs they sample, and provide another emotional facet to the soundscape of Aquemini.
As mentioned before, while united in lyrical skill, Big Boi and Andre 3000 were on completely different ways of approaching the idea of their content. On many of Aquemini’s songs Big Boi would look at the world to which he lived in with an acerbic street life perspective, while Andre 3000 would take an amplified mystical approach. For example, the title track “Aquemini” has the two trading verses, and exchanging ideas through a set of rhyme patterns that shift in structure between their two verses. The impernance to which they speak on themselves on the chorus, with the verses invoking a bunch of different thematics. Big Boi’s first speaks on enlightening the younger gentlemen in his neighborhood. Andre’s initial verse speaks on a bunch of different ideas ultimately constituting the ‘black experience’ that is the album. The second verses of each are simply iconic in addition, as while shortened, Big Boi’s braggadocio and Andre’s quadruple rhyme schemes are short and sweet manifestations of the sheer musicality of their styles. This type of thematic mirroring appears on the iconic track “Spottieottiedopaliscious”, where the two rappers interpret the vibe and the meaning of the titular term differently. Andre’s tale is a subversive piece ruminating on his interpretation of a murderous scene, a scene left for the listener to ruminate on in simultaneity. Big Boi’s subversion comes from the idea of the ‘trap’ where it may be appealing at a superficial level, yet the idea grown man stuff conflicts with it. This is another instance where they are lyrically equal yet speak on different themes.
Looking back on it in modern times, this album has aged well due to its experimental soundscape that remains a radical piece that marked a new frontier for southern rap. Even today, there remains a value in looking back on Andre and Big Boi’s lyrical content and how it translates into a mix of multiple thematic approaches that adds an element of humanity to the album itself. If one is seeking an innovative piece of hip hop music that continues to stand out, then look no further than Outkast’s Aquemini as an essential piece of this form of hip hop.