"The South got somethin’ to say."
Andre Benjamin’s words at the 1995 Source Awards, accepting Outkast’s Best New Artist award at the height of the East vs. West Coast rivalry, sparked a revolution that can still be felt today. In 2016 the influence of Southern hip-hop is inescapable, from the mainstream pop charts to underground dance music. Through rejecting both East and West Coast, and carving out their own sonic identity, they paved the way for Southern artists to truly express themselves, making music that held universal appeal and yet was unapologetically Southern. When Outkast were at their best, as they were on Aquemini, they were unbeatable. Whatever your opinion on today’s rap landscape, none of it would have been possible without Outkast.
In terms of sheer musicality, Aquemini set a high benchmark that has yet to be surpassed in hip-hop. Produced in part by the duo’s regular production team Organized Noize, but also for the first time by Big Boi and Andre themselves, the album flits from genre to genre, drawing from influences as wide as country (‘Rosa Parks’) to P-Funk (‘Synthesizer’) to guitar rock (‘Chonkyfire’), whilst remaining unmistakeably a Southern rap record, held together by lazily open snares and crisp hi-hats. Songs like West Savannah sound so relaxed that it’s easy to overlook just how much craft goes in to constructing them; make no mistake, Outkast knew exactly what they were doing. The decision to use live instrumentation rather than sample-based beats provides each track with a warmth and body that is missing on other great rap albums. Consider the iconic horns on SpottieOttieDopaliscious, or the shimmering guitar line on the title track that brings an otherwise sparse sound to life. It’s obvious from the instrumentals alone that they were a group operating at the peak of their powers and with supreme confidence. They were content to let tracks run for 2 minutes after the vocals’ conclusion, relying simply on the strength of the music to hold the listener’s attention. Everything they try on this album seems to come off. Just listen to the entirety of SpottieOttieDopaliscious, a 7-minute spoken word trumpet jam that fades out with Andre echoing incoherent syllables in your ear. In any other hands this song would be bloated and pretentious; within the sonic landscape of Aquemini it made perfect sense.
If Aquemini’s beats sounded unlike anything else being done in 1998, then they were perfectly suited to the two rappers rhyming over them. Big’s grounded verses serve as a perfect foil to Andre’s roaming nature; he is the ideal straight man to complement Andre’s show-stealing turns. In doing so he still manages to fit in mind-boggling flows and rhyme schemes that no one else could attempt – just listen to his alternately stuttering then rapid-fire verse on Rosa Parks. Big Boi’s solo track, West Savannah, is only slightly below Nas’ iconic NY State of Mind in the list of rap songs expertly evoking a place and time; he describes every detail of his early days, from the cassette that was in his tape deck (Sade), to the direction that his cap was pointing (east). Storytelling flourishes like these elevate Big Boi from the ‘gangster rapper’ category that he is all too often put into, and onto another level.
With the disclaimer in mind that Big Boi is undoubtedly one of the most underrated rappers of all time, it still has to be stressed that Andre on this album is practically untouchable. The only possibility of him being outshined is on Skew it on the Bar-B, taking what is probably the best guest verse of all time by Raekwon. From his first line he takes no prisoners, railing against those who were questioning his supposedly ‘softer’ approach: ‘the question is Big Boi what’s up with Andre/Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?/When y’all gon’ break up? When y’all gon’ wake up?/N---a I’m feelin’ better than ever what’s wrong with you’. Although Andre’s unable to bring the same level of personal experience as Big Boi, he sells his lines on poverty, drug abuse and the Atlanta nightlife on songs like SpottieOttieDopaliscious and Y’all Scared, with the same integrity as any street rapper would. This makes his moments of introspection and stargazing even more poignant. When, in a perfect distillation of his dual natures, he rhymes, ‘Sin all depends on what you believing in/faith is what you make it, that’s the hardest shit since MC Ren’, you believe him.
Aquemini is an album built around the duality of Big Boi and Andre. The title itself is a portmanteau of Aquarius and Gemini, the rappers’ Zodiac signs. Outkast, today, are famous for the image of ‘the Pimp and the Poet’, Big Boi and Andre 3000, one concerned with street level hustling whilst the other fixes his gaze on the stars. Aquemini was where this idea was at its most effective, before it descended into parody. Big and Dre were aware of their differences, and used them expertly. And yet, on Aquemini at least, there was more that united than divided them.
Words: Nick Bedingfield