Holy Hell! Aquemini Turns 20

Holy Hell! Aquemini Turns 20

Aquemini ushered in the modern era of Atlanta’s staggering hip-hop domination and undiminished idiosyncrasy.

There may be no non-concept hip-hop album more keenly narrativized by its skit interludes that OutKast’s Aquemini. Offering snapshot portraits of sardonic street interactions, these skits just as often reference the duo themselves, with Atlanta natives passing around bootleg copies of the new album like drug deals and commenting on André 3000 and Big Boi’s intriguing, if puzzling, changes in direction. At the end of “Return of the ‘G,’” the first proper track on the album, a record shop owner clandestinely offers a pre-release copy to a favored client, only for the customer to say, “No, no. First they was pimps. Then they was some aliens, some genies or some shit. Then they be talking ‘bout that black righteous space, man. Whatever. Fuck them, I ain’t fuckin’ with them no more.” It’s a funny riff about the meteoric, unpredictable arc of OutKast’s lyrical preoccupations and ambitions, as well as an indirect admission of anxiety over said ambitions will be met by listeners who may be less than interested in the pair’s vision.

Two decades removed from the album’s release, it’s almost unfathomable to think that Aquemini might ever have been a failure. Though far from the duo’s commercial peak, it represented the moment that their early work’s scattered genius coalesced into diamond-hard focus. Consider the way that “Return of the ‘G’” dusts off the old, down-to-earth, clichéd pimps from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, albeit with direct criticism of said archetype. In the first verse, André admits that he’s assuming this persona only to prove to ATLiens detractors that he had not gone soft and he disparages critics and fans who “be steady clappin’ when you talk about/ Bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed.” Big Boi is similarly reticent to write lyrics about such staid subjects and instead puts over the bond he shares with André, saying that they are “stickin’ together like flour and water to make that slow dough.” Both men were only 23 when the album was released, but their perspective from the outset of the album is one of measured maturity and newfound senses of responsibility in the wake of each man becoming a father.

That shift in perspective runs through the album but is perhaps most directly addressed in deep cut “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” Structured almost like a casual chat, the track starts with Organized Noize member Sleepy Brown inviting the guys out to the club, only for André to immediately start reminiscing about his partying days, a hell of thing to already be looking at from the rearview mirror at his age. Dré remembers a time he “was so engulfed in the Olde E [he] never made it to the door” of a local club, and where Brown wants to party until the cops show up. Dré recalls when one party ended with flashing lights of a different kind when a fight broke out and three guys “got hauled off in the ambulance, sliced up.” Big Boi, for his part, ruminates on meeting his wife, and his lyrics are tender and vulnerable, talking about his heart beating faster when he first saw her. Then, he spirals off into reflections on fatherhood, wondering aloud “Funny how shit come together sometimes/ One moment you frequent the booty clubs and/ The next four years you and somebody’s daughter/ Raisin’ y’all own young’n now that’s a beautiful thang.” Taken together, Dré and Boi sound less like early twentysomethings only now approaching their commercial potential than wizened, middle-aged men looking back on a life already lived. If playing both pimps and aliens let the two try on personas to comment on rap’s use of characters as filters for deeper truths, here they confidently step out as themselves, and they find that they are just as able to weave dizzying narratives and compelling lyrics while presenting unvarnished selves.

As ever, Big Boi’s rhymes are punchy and observant while Dré dreams big. On “Rosa Parks,” Boi boasts of “doing doughnuts” around wannabe rivals, meanwhile André mulls over the pressure facing artists to top their last hit and how he only hears the flaws when he listens to the group’s records. By staging Boi’s typical braggadocio first, the track lulls the audience into a standard boast track before digging at insecurities behind that mask of confidence. It’s an ingenious maneuver that takes the rappers’ distinct styles and creates subtext out of their juxtaposition. That intriguing discrepancy is perhaps most clearly articulated on the title track. On it, Big Boi raps about all that he and André have while warning up-and-comers to focus on their bills before buying anything fancy. André, meanwhile, nearly divests from his corporeal body, discussing the hope he feels even in the darkness.

Along with structure, composition plays a key role in explicating the hidden tensions and meanings in the album. That holds true especially on the two parts of “Da Art of Storytellin,’” in which both men rap about their romantic encounters with a legendary local woman, only for the track around them to gradually morph from a sticky piece of humid funk to a more haunting, faint howl of noise as a kind of biblical reckoning strikes. “Liberation” threads what would otherwise be a somber ballad with clashing intrusions of live percussion, adding an arrhythmic melody that adds concern to the lyrics. Sometimes, the music is just pleasurable for its own sake; “Mamacita” front-mixes some brittle percussion but curves into the pocket left by that clacking slow-burner. “Synthesizer” even nabs George Clinton to a number that out-G-funks G-funk, embracing the cerebral weirdness of Clinton’s approach to funk with highly processed beats offset by stabs of live instrumentation.

“Synthesizer” is one of the album’s lightest moments, lyrically, but in its effortless combination of G-funk smoothness (cribbing Clinton himself rather than merely sampling him) with East Coast artiness, the track presents a straightforward look at what OutKast achieved. The closing track gradually slurs to a close with an extended sample of the duo’s acceptance speeches for Best Newcomer at the 1995 Source Awards, where they notoriously won out due to heavy vote-splitting between East and West Coast camps. Boi thanks God and momentarily wins a reprieve of applause amid choruses of boos, but Dré famously gets to the mic and argues for the legitimacy of their win, saying simply “It’s like this, the South got somethin’ to say.” By fusing the best of each prevailing style of early ‘90s rap into something new, lyrically confessional and sonically probing, OutKast definitively proved that the South had something to say. They would go on to enjoy a dizzying level of commercial and critical success, but OutKast peaked with this record, and with it they broke the dam holding back the South from the larger rap world, ushering in the modern era of Atlanta’s staggering hip-hop domination and undiminished idiosyncrasy.

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