Outkast released Aquemini on September 29, 1998, an event that deserves some recognition. So we’re reprinting our original review of the album, along with an end-of-year reflection on its significance.
Outkast – Aquemini
There’s been a lot written lately about hip hop's Southern renaissance. But if you pile up the mass of product coming out of the locales that serve as focal points for the sound of the Dirty South—Houston, New Orleans, Memphis—you'll find the new style is little more than West Coast gangsta hand-me-downs married to Miami's big bass beat. Atlanta, home of Newt Gingrich and Freaknik, is different. Unofficial capital of the Dirty South and America's most vibrant Chocolate City, it’s home to some of the most vital hip hop (maybe even pop) today. This summer, Atlanta's Goodie Mob released the year's most impassioned hip-hop record, Still Standing, and now, the original Atlanta rap duo, Outkast (Andre Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton), have dropped their best record yet.
On “Y'all Scared,” Big Boi says, “Even though we got two albums, this one feels like the beginning.” And so it does. The third 'Kast record, Aquemini, features live instrumentation ripe with horns on nearly every cut, and, at its best, it sounds like P-Funk gone ragamuffin on the chitlin’ circuit. With live acoustic guitar and harmonica (provided by the group's minister, Pastor Robert Hodo) laying a foundation for turntable acrobatics and Benjamin and Big Boi's Dixie-fried rhymes, the lead single, “Rosa Parks,” is the earthy Southern hip hop of Arrested Development's dreams.
Big Boi and Dre are both distinctive MCs, and complement each other well. Big Boi (a.k.a. “Daddy Fat Sax, the nigga who likes those Cadillacs”) is a chronicler of the commonplace, speaking live and direct whether breaking down his West Savannah roots or hooking up with some honey he meets at the mall. Andre, with his taste for platinum-blond wigs and Sgt. Peppery suits, is freakier and obviously the group's visionary. “My mind warps and bends, floats the wind,” he raps on the title track. “Sin all depends on what you believing in/Faith is what you make it, that's the hardest thing since MC Ren.”
But his Southernness keeps Andre grounded. On the future shock “Synthesizer” (featuring Uncle Jam himself, George Clinton, on backup vocals) he includes instant grits with cloning, virtual reality, and plastic surgery in his litany of unwanted technological advances. As elliptical as that may be, it's smarter than a bucket full of No Limit goons, and more political than a bag of Eightballs.— Chris Herrington, Oct. 14, 1998
Artists of the Year: Outkast and Taylor Branch
To Outkast's roughly half-black, half-white audience at First Avenue, the “Everybody move to the back of the bus” refrain might have sounded like a call for white America to integrate into African America, for North to go South. But this ambiguous chorus of “Rosa Parks” isn't all that links the hip-hop duo to civil rights historian and fellow Atlanta native Taylor Branch, whose second volume of “America in the King Years,” Pillar of Fire, came out early this year.
Like Lauryn Hill, rappers Big Boi and Andre Benjamin take an emotional page from Nina Simone's “Young, Gifted, and Black,” where the singer was “haunted” by her past. Simone was probably thinking about a childhood in segregated North Carolina, but the MCs find just as many ghosts in modern Atlanta, and they chase them not to solve the mystery of themselves but to figure out what went wrong in their hometown. Like good historians, Outkast are bracing in their sureness of craft, and their album Aquemini is a vivid picture of Southern living—and dying—as fresh as it is disturbing. In one typically spacey mix of funk and reggae, Benjamin remembers looking at the stars with a lover who never made it out of the ghetto alive, and later considers the meaning of the word “trap,” lamenting a generation lost in a cloud of “Billy Clint.”
As a white liberal who has written speeches for Clinton, Branch keeps himself remarkably honest while chronicling LBJ's own cloud of delusions. Branch wrings out all of the bloody laundry of the mid-'60s administrations, paralleling the Gulf of Tonkin incident with the discovery of the slain Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi. And he correctly cites Malcolm X as the first public figure to connect the dots between American violence abroad and at home.
But Branch also tells the story you never knew was the story: that Malcolm inspired a multiracial brand of American Islam that dwarfs Farrakhan's small yet vocal sect. That was what Malcolm died for—leading all Americans to the back of the bus. In a year when our pop culture felt trapped and starved, feeding on its own past almost obsessively, Branch and Outkast throw light and provide shade.—Peter S. Scholtes, Dec. 30, 1998