Like all genre-stricken art forms, hip-hop music has garnered a plethora of tropes and cliches that it will forever carry with it. This was no overnight happening; but rather, it comes from an abundance of similar-sounding releases spanning multiple decades. Artists who verbally tread the same ground as their predecessors. And for those who aspire for a lyrically different route, still manage to get categorized by their beat construction and selection. As an art, hip-hop’s metaphorical canvas is stained and its brush has withered, leaving only so many strokes left. Most artists reach to break the mold and put their own little spark of energy back into the culture. For all the flames that have been lit and blown out, there is at least one hip-hop group whose spark has yet to even start dimming.
The lethal combination of Andre 3000 and Big Boi to form OutKast, would prove to change the place in our mind that music occupies by expanding it. In 1998, the duo released their third and arguably best studio album, Aquemini. The album managed to bridge a magnum opus of a gap between two nearly perfect albums. On one side, you had 1996’s ATLiens which was a funky, gospel-y, down-south foray into hip-hop’s mainstream. On the other, you would find 2002’s “Best Rap Album” Grammy winner, Stankonia, which featured such a diverse musical palette that no two songs sounded remotely similar. While both of these albums were necessary and catalytic in the evolution of hip-hop, some of their strength gave way to the duo’s heavy experimentation.
Aquemini is an album that I feel, struck that perfect balance between delivering a decipherable message and giving listeners something they have never heard before. The irony of the album’s memorability is the way it introduces itself to us. The opening track ‘Hold On, Be Strong’, is a brief, soothing, piano medley by Andre, over which you can hear “hold on, be strong”, hummed in an almost dream-like state.
After being lulled into a musical state of peace, you are faced with hard hitting drum notes in, ‘Return of the “G”’. This track was no doubt, OutKast’s reminder to the world that they were very capable of keeping it gangster. After an album full of positive messages and very-little solace for gang related endeavors, apparently, some people thought Big Boi and Andre and gone soft. They used this track as a way to cleverly bash the self-destructive cycle of gang life and also as almost a, “be careful what you wish for”, ballad.
Next, we were given the extremely catchy album single, ‘Rosa Parks’. The song drips with southern swagger. A bunch of kick-drums, and a…what..a harmonica? Yes, the beat did something that was brand new to the hip-hop community, and it did so beautifully and unforgettably. This song alone portrays just how genre defying this album is. The lack of being able to place it under any sort of cliche, makes it an album for anyone; no genre label required.
Part of the album’s beauty comes from how evident everything is. On the title-track, ‘Aquemini’, finds the duo becoming self-aware that nothing will last forever. Yet they find comfort in the strength of their brotherhood and the fact that no matter how different they are from the norm or typical rapper, they shouldn’t be written off. The song is concluded with a verse by Andre, who’s rhyme scheme is so incredible that it needs to be heard multiple times before its intricacies can be fully appreciated.
Big Boi and Three Stacks continue achieving their fully-realized potential on the remainder of the album as well. Weaving back and forth between fun, gangster-life stories and songs packed with politically-positive messages divulged through the duo’s recollection of their own trials and tribulations.
One of the album’s most notable high points is the dual piece in which the artists explain their own reverence for the hood. The song, ‘Da Art Of Storytellin’ (Part 1)’, is a story told through the use of a couple female characters who had tempted our two lyricists in different ways and had eventually fallen victim to their own vices. The storytelling aspect is phenomenally done and the beat is nothing to take lightly.
It segue perfectly into part two, which takes the small scale of misfortune applied to a few people on part one and applies it on a much larger scale. The lyrics pick apart human logic and our fallacy of taking much of what the world and life provides for granted. Together, the two tracks end up creating a narrative and continually expand the scope of what the listeners consider to be music.
This album stretches itself across so many categories lyrically and sonically that it would be impossible to do it justice in any number of written reviews or otherwise. Considering all the places this album made accessible for future “hip-hop” labeled works to occupy, it’s hard to not see as only the beginning of something much bigger. Aquemini manages to take up so much space, so efficiently. The smoothness of Big Boi’s vocals are definitely something to behold, and they blend perfectly with Andre 3000’s diverse delivery that seems to be whatever he wants it to be at any given moment, and noticeably so. When taken as a whole, there is no denying the credibility of OutKast as hip-hop progressives. Their entire discography has place in the community, but this album feels like the engine to their musical train, bringing music and expression to places otherwise unexplored. I tip my hat to hip-hop’s Lewis and Clark.