Outkast's 'Aquemini' Is The Pinnacle of the Duo's Art & The Culmination of Atlanta's 1990s Spirit
OutKast had been hitting home runs for four years when they dropped their critically-acclaimed third album Aquemini in late September of 1998.
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, released in ‘94, was a critically acclaimed, Platinum-selling debut that established the duo as formidable rhymers with a uniquely southern approach -- the sound of legendary production trio Organized Noize’s velvety productions and the perspective of the two fresh-out-of-high-school MCs forged a template for Atlanta’s hip-hop identity. The follow-up, the even more successful ATLiens, dropped in 1996, and pushed beyond the youthful wannabe-pimp image forged on their debut, as ‘Kast got spacier and more cerebral, over a backdrop as lush as it was soulful.
But there was a reason why Aquemini resonated as deeply and widely as it did. Hip-hop’s audience had exploded between 1996 and 1998 -- years after Andre (not yet 3000), infamously declared “The South got something to say” as the duo was booed at the 1995 Source Awards -- and hip-hop’s “third coast” had bum-rushed the game and was reshaping the rap landscape. And Aquemini, the album that seemed to be confirmation of everything, was OutKast’s masterpiece.
By 1998, the South was beginning to leapfrog the West Coast as hip-hop’s second most important hub. In the early 1990s, Cali acts like Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube and 2Pac wrested the national spotlight away from New York City, only to have the Big Apple claw its way back via major crossover success for artists like The Notorious B.I.G. and Wu-Tang Clan, with The Fugees and Jay-Z later also enjoying high-profile commercial hits. The 1996 murder of Tupac Shakur and subsequent deterioration of Death Row Records left the West Coast’s popular standing into freefall. Around the same time, the South was surging.
In-roads had been made for years. Pop rappers Kris Kross had gone Platinum in 92, artsy Arrested Development won Grammys in 93 and bass stars Tag Team saw unexpected crossover success with “Whoomp! There It Is” that same year. But these disparate acts hadn’t really announced ATL’s hip-hop identity, and the South was still fairly marginalized from a national perspective.
Following OutKast’s Platinum-selling debut in 1994, a wave of southern rap acts were suddenly gaining national showcase on mainstays like BET’s Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps, which was then in its final years. Over the next four years, established artists like Houston legend Scarface and Eightball & MJG of Memphis enjoyed newfound visibility, as did newer acts like South Circle and Memphis native Tela of Tony Draper’s Houston-based Suave House Records, and even OutKast’s fellow Dungeon Family members Goodie Mob.
Meanwhile, southern-based labels like Suave House, J. Prince’s Rap-A-Lot, Master P’s upstart No Limit Records, and the fledgling Cash Money Records were making inroads into a market that was hungry for gritty gangsta shit, and related to the southern perspective. In 1997, No Limit broke through to the mainstream, with P’s Ghetto D album starting on its way to multi-Platinum success late that year. As far as hip-hop was concerned, the South had arrived.
But OutKast was always pushing against the grain. And as southern hip-hop was finally breaking through, Big Boi and Dre still set themselves apart from the emerging wave. On “Return of the G,” Andre raps:
“It’s the return of the gangsta thanks ta'
Them n---as that thank 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'…”
It was an opening bar that threw a middle finger up to anyone who tried to put OutKast in a box. Similarly to how De La Soul reveled in their oddness almost a decade prior in their video for 1989 hit “Me, Myself and I,” OutKast was making it clear that conformity was not in the cards. From the declarations of “Return of the G” to the tongue-in-cheek “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” sketches that would pepper their new album, it should have been obvious where these guys stood, creatively -- in a space of their own.
Aquemini is the perfect synthesis of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s earthy grit and ATLiens’ ethereal spirit; an ambitiously varied collection of tracks that run the stylistic gamut. The sonic foundation was the kind of soul-infused hip-hop the South had become known for, but melded with a P-Funk-like affinity for Afrofuturistic imagery and and odd prog rock samples from bands like Genesis and Camel -- even Henry Mancini’s theme from Police Woman. The musicality is as rich as anything Dre and Big Boi had done with Organized Noize; here working alongside the two emcees and Mr. DJ, who themselves produced as Earthtone III. The eclectic sensibility feels born of an alchemy that can only come from Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton’s uniquely complementary creative gifts; and that ability to be unerringly quirky while maintaining the relatable SWATS-bred aura they’d always had was never better showcased than here.
There’s a ghostly essence throughout Aquemini, a vibe that seemed to be at the heart of so much of what was coming out of mid-1990s Atlanta. It was a uniquely ATL spirit; birthed on Joi’s 1994 debut The Pendulum Vibe, bred on 1995’s underrated standalone Society of Soul album Brainchild, embodied on 1996s ATLiens, informing Witchdoctor’s A S.W.A.T.S. Healing Ritual in 1997 and defining Goodie Mob's excellent Still Standing, released earlier in 1998. OutKast’s third album is the pinnacle of a stirring mix of soul, funk, hip-hop and rock that was the Organized Noize sound and The Dungeon Family’s spirit.
As opposed to repurposing sounds via funk/soul/jazz samples, as East Coast producers had done, this was more directly reconnecting music born in the Bronx to its broader heritage in African American sounds that had grown below the Mason-Dixon, using more traditional, organic musicianship. It made OutKast torchbearers for a specific kind of Peach State spirit of innovation. After all, Otis Redding, James Brown and Little Richard are all from Georgia; and all could be considered founding fathers of soul, funk and rock & roll. They took pre-existing forms and repurposed them via their own unique voices; and OutKast was now doing the same. Hip-hop needed the spirit and the spirituality that red clay artists gave it, and no other album illuminates how potent that specifically southern voice could be.
Sampling in hip-hop was once again under scrutiny in the late 1990s, as hitmakers like Trackmasters, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jermaine Dupri were scaling the charts with slick hits that were basically retreads of pop and R&B smashes from the 1980s. The dense, collage-like sampling approach of The Bomb Squad and Prince Paul had been virtually erased by clearance issues and litigation, and the more streamlined approach of pop rap hits was drawing criticism for its lack of creativity. Organized Noize’s production had always featured little-to-no samples, and OutKast thrived in that mode -- even without their mentors behind the boards. They had no aversion to sampling, but there was always an artistic standard to maintain.
“Some people get out there and abuse [sampling] and use no creativity whatsoever,” Big Boi told Chicago’s John Reed in 1998. “They might take a whole song, just 3 and a half minutes, just busting on somebody else’s beat. But what OutKast likes to do is, we do creative sampling; we sample a horn riff or some kind of drum kick or a snare or anything, you’ll never know where it came from because we alter it so much to fit what we’re doing. It’s OutKast.”
The earthy southern sound of Aquemini and other classic rap albums of the era would soon be replaced by more high-energy, synth-heavy production as the ‘90s came to a close. Cash Money Records would break big in late 1998, following the multi-Platinum success of Juvenile’s hit album 400 Degreez. Via a slick, bounce-driven sound helmed by superproducer Mannie Fresh, hits by Juvie, labelmates like B.G., The Hot Boys, The Big Tymers, and a teenaged Lil Wayne would put the label squarely in the mainstream rap spotlight at the dawn of a new decade.
Also throughout 1998, the seeds of crunk music were beginning to bear fruit. Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz dropped their debut Get Crunk Who U Wit in late 1997, and regional hits like Three Six Mafia’s “Tear Da Club Up ‘97” and Pastor Troy’s “We Ready (No Mo’ Play In GA)” had been southern club staples throughout the year. Crunk was hyperkinetic and aggressive, like the angry stepchild of bass music and Beats By the Pound. By the early 2000s, the slicker sounds of southern producers like Juicy J, Jazze Pha and DJ Toomp would flourish on mainstream airwaves, having usurped the earthier music associated with southern producers like Mike Dean, T-Mix, Pimp C and Organized Noize from a decade prior. Even OutKast’s smash follow-up to Aquemini, 2000s Stankonia, was more futuristic and digital than what they’d done in the 1990s.
The success of Aquemini was significant but muted. None of the album’s singles were as successful on the Billboard Hot 100 as previous hits like “Player’s Ball” or “Elevators,” but the album itself was widely hailed as a masterpiece -- earning the then-coveted distinction of 5 mics from The Source magazine. Released on the same day as A Tribe Called Quest’s seemingly final album The Love Movement, it seemed to confirm that OutKast was now the gold standard for mainstream creativity in hip-hop, having assumed the baton from that legendary Queens crew as Tribe dissolved over the late ‘90s. Andre 3000 was now being more regularly hailed as one of the most peerless rhymers in the game, and if Big Boi was becoming overshadowed by his more unconventional partner, it didn’t mean he was overlooked, as he grew into one of the most consistent scene-stealers in hip-hop, appearing on hits by everyone from Missy Elliott (“All N My Grill”) to Slick Rick (“Street Talkin’”) and YoungBloodz (“85”).
The album also brought some unwanted litigation. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks filed suit in 1999 against OutKast and LaFace Records (subsequently Sony/BMG), claiming use of her name on Aquemini’s hit single without permission constituted false advertising and infringed on her right to publicity. She also claimed it defamed her character, and interfered with a business relationship involving a gospel album called A Tribute to Rosa Parks. A federal judge dismissed part of the lawsuit in 1999, but ultimately the suit would be fully settled in 2005, six months before Parks’ death. The episode uncomfortably connected an album steeped in Black southernness to the complex history of that same Black southernness, and served as an example of the divide that often kept the Civil Rights generation at odds with the brazenness of the hip-hop generation.
Twenty years later, the third album from OutKast feels like the culmination of everything the duo, Organized Noize and The Dungeon Family seemed to set out to accomplish back in 1993/1994. It’s arguably the last great hip-hop album from the South’s first great era, as both 400 Degreez and the rise of crunk music would push things in entirely new sonic directions in the years to come. It’s the high-water mark for OutKast, who have no shortage of amazing albums in their discography. It’s Big Boi and Dre, both still fully committed to the idea of OutKast -- that is, this synergy that was signified in the album’s name, the yin/yang magic of 3000 and Sir Lucious before they became pop superstars and pulled in different directions.
It’s not always commendable -- the homophobia of “Mamacita” has not aged well -- but it’s remained one of the most brilliant albums of the ‘90s, hip-hop or otherwise, because it successfully melds so much. The spirit of 90s Atlanta, from Yin Yang Café to Club 559 to the country hole-in-the-wall spots one could hit up within 20 miles of downtown -- it’s all there in the sound. In 1998, OutKast made The A sound and feel like the funkiest, most futuristic place on earth.
And you know what? It was.