FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Outkast’s “Aquemini,” the First Hip-Hop Epic

In 2016 it’s hard to believe that hip-hop had already been proclaimed dead by 1998. It was the same complaint then that it is now. Whilst East Coast boom bap wasn’t exactly a “distant memory,” it was still considered the genre’s zenith, never to be obtained again after the death of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. In 1995, at the height of the East Coast, West Coast war, the Source Awards were held in the birthplace of rap, New York City. A homegrown crowd of hip-hop purists booed Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre and their hip-hop bastardisation, G-Funk. If Snoop and Dre were ignorami, then Outkast, hailing from Atlanta, Georgia were outright hillbillies. Even in 1995 the Dirty South had a reputation for producing the lowest common denominator of rap; when Andre 3000 took to the stage to accept the award for ‘Best New Rap Group’ he made his presence known: “the South has something to say.” Those words didn’t just herald a new combatant in America’s regional hip-hop war. It heralded the arrival of Outkast.

In 1998, Outkast released their third, and greatest album, Aquemini, and showed the world that the genre wasn’t dead yet. Released in a year when the most experimental thing hip-hop could think of was a sample from the musical Annie, Outkast’s gift for foresight resulted in an album that was prophetic in its scope. It sounded progressive in 1998 and it sounds progressive now. 12 years before Kanye West was “transcending genres,” Outkast were experimenting with gospel, jazz, world music, funk, spoken word and live instrumentation. It shattered the widely held perception that the genre was out of sonic ideas. It established hip-hop as the finest platform for experimentation, unique in its ability to borrow from other genres and yet still retain an identity. Play it next to Good Kid M.A.A.D City, and the latter instantly loses its “experimental” gloss. Play it next to To Pimp A Butterfly and it’s almost impossible to determine which came first. It may be the first audio recording of the words “crunk” and even, “trap.” It foretells the coming of autotune, 10 years before 808s & Heartbreak. On Aquemini, Andre was experimenting with singing, voice modification and pitch-correction. Many in his camp warned that this would alienate the group’s urban audience. It paid homage to the past, while it kept its gaze firmly on a science fiction future. But for an album so many decades ahead of its time, it’s remarkable for its unpretentious quality, pure and affirming.

The album’s chief fixation is the concept of duality. Whilst the name comes from a portmanteau of the two performers Zodiac signs, Aquarius and Gemini, the latter is enough to encapsulate the symbology: the story of mortal twins who ascend into godhood. Whilst an “opposites attract” theme was present in their first two albums, Aquemini was the first to employ the tagline “The Player and the Poet.” Big Boi is the hustler, the stand-over man and the realist, “I’m strapped man and ready to bust on any n*gga like that man.” Andre is the prophet, the bohemian and the futurist, “my mind warps and bends, floats the wind.”

The dichotomy is no more apparent than on Return of the G. Andre contemplates “time travel,” while Big Boi prefers to “set back in his gators and watch [his] baby girl blow bubbles.” West Savannah and Slump are stories weaved from Big Boi’s past. Synthesizer and Da Art of Storytellin Part 2 are Andre’s predictions for the future, but to see the Poet as the superior aspect is to misunderstand the symbiotic nature of the Gemini. Big Boi and Andre 3000 are fractions of a perfect being. The Player offers some respite from the Poet’s sermonising. On occasion, intellectual pursuit has to make way for the fruits of the flesh. To neglect the mind is ignorant, but to neglect the body is idiotic. This device facilitates the exploration of a problem at the core of hip-hop: how to be an artist and still “keep it real.”

Many albums grapple with the difficulty of being either commercial or artistic. Few do it explicitly. The album is lyrically engaged with the difficulty, or the impossibility of being both commercially and critically acclaimed. Outkast were totally conscious of what any attempt to broaden their horizons might do to alienate old fans, or tarnish their “gangsta” reputation. The outro skit on Return of the G takes place at a record shop, with some disgruntled former fans decrying Outkast’s regression from “pimps” to “aliens” to “black righteous,” the fans “ain’t fuckin’ with them no mo.’” But the same fan might have been pleased with Aquemini.

In 1998 you could either be Jay-Z or Blackstar, with little in between. The Player and the Poet wanted it both ways. Whilst Aquemini gives us a 9-minute world music slam poetry session with Erykah Badu on Liberation, it also gives us Mafioso music with Raekwon on Skew It On the Bar-B. Aquemini showed us that hip-hop could be so much more than drugs and guns, but it never denied that guns and drugs were an important aspect of the culture. Aquemini is concerned with the human condition and it is concerned with the cosmos: Andre 3000 speaks with the same disaffected tone when he describes a drug overdose, as when he describes the apocalypse, neither is inherently more tragic than the other. This middle ground approach resulted in a gospel that was never preachy, a sophistication that was never snobbish, and an intelligence that was never superior. The albums final skit sees the same customers return to the record shop. They’re unhappy with the fictional Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique album and demand a refund. The thugs have become discerning.

While the hip-hop concept album had existed for some years, Aquemini was the first hip-hop epic. Aquemini is cinematic in its ability to isolate a set number of themes and focus on them in detail: on the earthy side, the album deals with interpersonal relationships. Through the narrative of a night out at an underage nightclub SpottieOttieDopaliscious juxtaposes the two romances of Andre and Big Boi, as well as providing the most infectious horns section in music history. Andre’s chance at love is quashed when a neighbourhood gang-feud breaks out on the dance floor, but it’s the Player who witnesses Poetry, when he meets the eyes of a woman on the dancer floor. One minute he’s in “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.” The seemingly out of place Mamacita, (which describes a female-female rape) makes more sense as a piece of autobiography – a former girlfriend of Andre 3000 began seeing women after their breakup.

Aquemini also tackled the issue of drug addiction in Southern communities. In Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 1, Andre again reaches into his own history to give us the character of Sasha Thumper and one of the most memorable aphorisms in hip-hop. When Andre asks the self-destructive Sasha Thumper what she wants to be when she grows up, she responds simply, “alive.” The John Lennon-esque quote is reportedly taken from a real-life conversation that Andre had with a child.

Maybe the albums biggest concern is a millennial fear of the apocalypse. Aquemini in 1998 captured a legitimate Y2K fear that the Year 2000 would bring about the end of days. But Outkast aren’t superstitious. They don’t believe the rapture will be signalled by “four horsies.” No, it’s the hubris of mankind that will trigger Armageddon – man’s relentless pursuit of technological advancement and his rapacious exploitation of Mother Earth. As early as 1998, Andre 3000 connected pollution with cataclysmic changes in global weather. In Synthesizer, a broadcast announces a news segment that will deal with the Mary Shelley conundrum, “are we digging into new ground, or digging our own graves?” Andre takes aim at the falsity of modern life, augmented by plastic surgery, virtual reality and even what we would now call, autotune. Da Art of Storytellin Part 2, meanwhile, is the story of the last recorded song on earth. It’s also chilling in its approach to the acceptance of death. When Andre looks up at the “electric blue sky” and sees that it is “raining cats and jackals,” he doesn’t panic. The rapture, like all death, is equalising and inevitable. Andre calls his fellow musicians and tells them to meet him at the centre of the earth. Bring the MPC and the SP 1200, he says. The distortion and relentless energy capture the feeling of an impending storm. But unlike Tenacious D, this isn’t just a tribute to the greatest song in the world, it is the greatest song in the world.

The simplistic nature of 90’s boom bap beats meant that virtually any sound desired could be recreated on a drum machine, and the sheer musical complexity of Aquemini left Outkast with little choice but to use live instrumentation. Bosstown Recording Studios operated on an ‘open door policy,’ with an assortment of musicians walking in and out of the studio at various stages of the album’s recording process. Reggae, jazz, funk and soul – Outkast were mashing-up the canon of black musical history long before Kendrick Lamar. Aquemini was built on improvisation, with many of the iconic chord patterns created during live jam sessions. This free-form process, in which even the most minor element was the product of improvisation, gave the album its organic feel. But whilst Aquemini borrows from other genres and other times, it’s unique in its distinct Southern flavour. In the late 1990s, Southern rappers were working hard to downplay their hillbilly heritage. Outkast embraced it. Rosa Parks is the classic hoedown anthem reworked for a post-Reconstruction South. Filled with plucky guitar, folksy harmonies, and even a foot-stomping breakdown complete with a harmonica solo delivered by a real-life preacher; Rosa Parks affirms the history of the South, and ensures its posterity.

The Year 2000 came and went without incident. Outkast released three more albums. All were hailed as progressive masterpieces. By 2006 Outkast were no more. Had they broken up? Had they disbanded? Or were the Player and the Poet, merely pausing, giving the world a decade to catch up to them?

Image: Hip-Hop Golden Age