It can be hard to remember a time when OutKast were underdogs, but back in 1998, two albums into their career, the duo was still on the defensive. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and ATLiens were both well-received upon arrival, with the former earning the duo the title of “Best Newcomer” at the 1995 Source Awards and the latter nabbing them a Platinum plaque — rarities for Southern rappers at the peak of rap’s East and West Coast-dominated era. Nevertheless, Big Boi and André 3000 acted as if their backs were up against the wall when it came time to record Aquemini, which was released 20 years ago today (Sept. 29). “Even though we got two albums,” Big raps on that album’s “Y’All Scared,” “This one feel like the beginning.”
OutKast were getting pigeonholed — by a New York hip-hop establishment that deemed them “country,” by conservative rap purists who thought André was getting too weird, by gangster rap fans and Atlanta locals who loved the hard-partying pimps of the first album but weren’t down with the more meditative ATLiens. Retorts to these misconceptions abound on Aquemini. “You might call us country, but we’s only Southern,” Big Boi raps on “West Savannah.” “Them n****s 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,” André says on “Return of the ‘G.’” “Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?,” he continues, mimicking his critics. Big Boi even vents about a near-perfect review (4.5/5 mics) in The Source on “Skew It on the Bar-B”: “I gotta hit The Source/ I need my other half mic/ because that Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was a classic, right?”
They responded by making one of the most adventurous yet well-rounded rap album of all time. Aquemini finds Big and Dre going off in a million directions at once but proving beyond a doubt that each path comes from the heart. It’s an album where a Georgia pastor’s harmonica solo shows up seconds before Staten Island’s Raekwon steps to the mic, where a jazzy, nine-minute meditation on “Liberation” and trap music forebearer Cool Breeze coexist, where boom-bap and futurism aren’t at odds, where lighthearted “story raps” suddenly become life-and-death parables. As they say on “Skew it on the Bar-B,” OutKast made an album for everyone from “Old-school players to new-school fools.”
Their first priority was convincing those old-school players who knew OutKast best as “two dope boys in a Cadillac” that they hadn’t gone too far into outer space. On an Aquemini skit, the duo parodied a prevailing opinion in Atlanta at the time:
Man, first they was some pimps, man. Then they was some aliens, or some genies, or some shit. Then they be talkin’ about that black righteous space, man, whatever, man. Fuck them. I ain’t fuckin’ with them no more.
Most of this criticism came down on André, who, according to Organized Noize’s Rico Wade in an oral history of Aquemini, “was already doing weird shit” at the time. Said Wade: “It was almost like you just wanted to make sure, ‘Goddamn, you still there right?’ And he let folks know he was still there on this one.”
The specific “one” to which Wade was referring was “Return of the ‘G,’” the first actual song on the album. On it, André presents a Catch-22: He hates rapping about guns because it feeds into gangster rap clichés, but if he instead gives us “Somethin’ mind unravelin’,” people will think he’s gone soft. “‘Return of the Gangsta’ was trying to give them a sense of, ‘Hey, I’m still a regular person,’” Dre said in that oral history. Instead of delivering the pulpy, sensationalized gun talk of gangster rap, Big Boi and André show how and why violence creeps into otherwise peaceful lives. Big Boi really just wants to take his shoes off and watch his daughter blow bubbles, but he raps that he’s still “willing to rob steal and kill anything that threatens mine.”
This push-and-pull between street-rap tropes, artistic ambitions and everyday life courses through Aquemini, making for a potent yet cohesive mix of head-blown experimentation as well as some of the hardest Southern rap to date. Most of Big Boi’s aggression stems from threats to his reputation and wealth: “Many fights had to be fought, G/ For a n**** to ride these Vogues;” “We worked for everything we have and gon’ stick up for each other;” “I gotta protect my name and what we fought for” — all this is far cry from a veteran rapper claiming to still be in the streets. In ‘98, Big Boi was more likely to “bust you in the mouth” with a chorus than his fist, to “bust raps like D-boys bust gats” rather than pulling an actual trigger. On Aquemini’s hardest tracks, the more streetwise half of OutKast speaks with authority, not arrogance.
Despite seeming like a course correction from ATLiens’ artsier aesthetic, imposing proto-trap tracks like “Slump” and “Y’all Scared” don’t negate what most people at the time would call OutKast’s “conscious” side. Big and Dre rap about their lived environment, not outer space, with notable empathy. On “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” Big Boi spins a story about a young father trying to go legit but failing drug tests. “So now you back in the trap — just that: trapped,” he concludes. Even on “Slump,” sandwiched between hardened verses about dealing from Backbone and Cool Breeze, Big focuses less on glamorized the drug trade and more on the minutiae of money management: leechlike hangers-on, child support, checking accounts, an old kitchen job. For an album as virtuosic, weird, and eclectic as Aquemini, its lyrics are widely accessible.
But it is still a very weird album. Throughout, André and Big Boi talk about breaking free of tradition, sometimes using the civil rights movement (namely, “Rosa Parks” and “Liberation”) as a metaphor for doing so. They embody this freedom by roping in country-fried sounds on “Rosa Parks”; an electronic-leaning, George Clinton-featuring spasm of technological paranoia on “Synthesizer”; a dark, abrasive tale about the apocalypse on “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2)”; a spoken-word epic on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”; and some bad-trip psychedelic rock on “Chonkyfire.”
That shouldn’t all fit under the same roof, but it does thanks to how carefully each genre excursion was constructed. After ATLiens far outperformed OutKast’s debut album, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 after Southernplayalistic peaked at No. 20, LaFace Records gave the duo a much higher budget, which allowed for more studio time. “We could really just live at Doppler Studios,” said Omar Phillips, a percussionist who worked on Aquemini, in that aforementioned oral history. “We were side by side, camped out, sleeping in the studio for weeks at a time,” Big Boi agreed.
In addition to hiring a wide range of session musicians, Dre and Big also stepped up their production game as well. Every track on their debut was produced by the Organized Noize team; on ATLiens, five of 15 tracks were credited to OutKast. Yet by Aquemini, the duo produced half of the album’s 16 tracks. Had OutKast assembled their stylistic departures in a slapdash manner or outsourced them to producers less in tune with their vision, they would have stood out like sore thumbs. But treated with just as much care as say, Big Boi’s very traditional-sounding, autobiographical “West Savannah,” a freaked-out song like “Synthesizer” sounds just as close to the group’s heart.
It’s not just the music that strives for freedom. Many of Aquemini’s most powerful lyrics preach a message of individuality and self-determination. “To have a choice to be who you want to be/ Is left up to me…,” Big raps on “Liberation.” “Still standin’ for somethin’ while y’all fallin’ for nothin’,” pipes in Goodie Mob’s Khujo on “Y’all Scared.” Much more metaphorically, street poet Big Rube disses “Cowardly lions never defyin’ the jackals of Babel/ Runnin’ with they pack, tail between your legs,” taking clear aim at less adventurous rappers. André, turning concerns about his own appearance on its head on the title track, questions if “every n**** with dreads” is woke, and if “every n**** with golds” is a blight on society. “Don’t get caught up in appearance,” he concludes.
Almost without exception, it’s André who takes the lead on Aquemini’s furthest departures from OutKast’s roots. An anecdote in Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South describes him playing around with pitch-correction equipment as Big Boi warned him that it would alienate the group’s audience. It’s easy to imagine many such moments of Big tempering Dre’s experimentation, as the contrast between their two artistic personas is at the core of the album’s identity and branding. The album’s title is a portmanteau of the duo’s astrological signs, and even though they claim that “horoscopes often lie” on the title track, each member’s creative role corresponds neatly with the general attributes ascribed to Aquariuses (André) and Geminis (Big Boi). The former is progressive, original, independent; the latter is adjustable, versatile enthusiastic. Or, as a promo sticker on the album’s cover put it, they were “the player [Big Boi] and the poet [André].” This dichotomy allows for André to go out on a wing and for Big Boi to keep up, or for Big Boi to stick to his strengths and for André to elevate them. They’re perfect foils for each other, and Aquemini finds each of them stretching their unique vision out into a taut connection with the other, just before the breaking point.
“Aquemini is the bridge between the pop brilliance of Stankonia and the Southern soul brilliance of ATLiens,” said frequent OutKast collaborator Killer Mike in an interview five years ago. It certainly was a moment of transition in the group’s own trajectory, as it marked the first time that Big and Dre seemed like entirely separate, sometimes contrasting individuals. This would eventually come to a head five years later on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, when each made their own solo album and packaged them together, but on Aquemini, whatever tension existed between group cohesion and vibrant individuality was productive: ATLiens’ sound is too consistent throughout to deliver the unexpected thrills of Aquemini, yet Stankonia’s is so eclectic that it loses Aquemini’s warm, beating pulse.
The rap universe is littered with albums that display tight, well-contained artistic visions and ones that attempt a little bit of everything. Finding a balance between the two is a rarity, and two decades on, Aquemini is still a model for how to pull it off.