Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here to continue our journey back in time to review the classics of years gone by. Today, we take another look at OutKast’s 1998 album, Aquemini. This album was the Atlanta duo’s 3rd overall and signalled to the hip hop world that the most creative, inventive hip hop didn’t always need to come out of New York and L.A. It further expanded on the sound developed on 1996’s ATLiens and, like sweet iced tea, was as thick, syrupy, and as Southern as anything in rap at the time. I have this crazy theory about OutKast. It’s actually a theory about the 5-album stretch for OutKast that includes Aquemini, along with ATLiens, Stankonia, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Idlewild. Granted, it’s one that could be considered blasphemous, but I’ll build a little suspense first…
From the first time my cousin Bryan played the Sugar Hill Gang for me when I was 10, to listening to early Run-DMC at Villanova basketball camp in 1985, I have been fascinated with hip hop. Granted, it’s an awkward fascination. I love hip hop, I really do, but I’ve only ever been able to listen to it in small doses when compared to other genres of music. It’s strange, really. I’ve just always had a hard time listening to an entire Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, or OutKast album all the way through and have it hold my attention. Actually, those 3 examples are the exception to the rule, but you get my point. I have to struggle to make it all the way through 90% of hip hop albums. More often than not, rap albums have 3 to 4 great tracks that you’ll listen to over and over again; the rest of the songs are mediocre at best. And somewhere in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, it seemed a prerequisite that every rap album needed to have intros and skits and interludes. I’ve never felt these tracks made the albums any better. Hearing Snoop talk to some chick on the phone so he can say, “Deez Nuts” to her, never did anything to enhance the musical experience for me, but it is what it is. Just get to the music. It’s like fighting in hockey. Yes, I get it, you’re trying to protect your teammates, earn respect, whatever, but it really does almost nothing to affect the overall game in my opinion. I’m sure Barry Melrose and his mullet would disagree with me, but I don’t give a damn.
When it comes to what blows my hair back when listening to hip hop, I usually prefer New York-based hip hop. I like a little grit and grime, some dynamic sampling, superior wordplay, a little braggadocio, and having a skilled turntablist and producer never hurts either. Most of my favorites in rap possess this and hail from New York: Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Company Flow, El-P, Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the Beastie Boys. I’m a fan of hip hop artists from outside of New York (The Roots, DJ Shadow, Kanye, The Clipse, Dre), but my hip hop comfort zone resides in NYC.
Outside of OutKast, I don’t really care for hip hop from the South. Whether it be 2 Live Crew, Master P, Mystikal, that cronk shit, and on and on, I’ve never been a fan. The Dirty South has been virtually non-existent in my music collection. It’s heavy bass, 808-driven nonsense that’s tailor made for strip clubs and I just don’t have much interest in it. It’s purpose is not to tell a story or inspire or even be musically creative, it’s just to get those asses shaking. Granted, that’s my opinion. I’m fine with that, by the way. Sometimes music needs to be just for fun, I get it. It’s just not for me, that’s all.
OutKast is different, though. They possess those typical Southern rap elements (not just musically, but their vocal delivery which, at times, has a thick drawl, and a tendency to rhyme at warp speed), but they were also willing to take risks and branch out musically. We, the listeners, benefit because of this. You can get those asses shaking on the dance floor, but you can also do it creatively and with a little flair. Give them something different. At the same time, they have evolved musically from album to album, expanding on their previous work, looking for new sounds and production techniques. Many of the new sounds on Aquemini clearly come from the George Clinton/Parliment/Funkadelic school of rock. Hell, the Atomic Dog himself is even featured on the song “Synthesizer”. These songs just drip with funk and smell like a studio full of high-grade weed. No surprise, this is a chemically-enhanced effort, which may help explain the length of this album.
Aquemini picks up where ATLiens left off, then expands and grows musically over the course of the album. It starts slow and easily slips into a steady groove that is maintained throughout. There are some moments that pick up the pace, but not much is dramatically different, tempo-wise, from beginning to end. It makes for a surprisingly satisfying listen all the way through. Listen to how songs like “Rosa Parks”, “Synthesizer”, and “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)” seem to go down like a smooth glass of fine bourbon. They don’t jump out at you and smack you in the face. Instead, they slowly creep up on you after a couple listens and, suddenly, you find yourself coming back over and over again. They’re intoxicating.
My only problem with this album (and most albums, for that matters) is that it tries to fit in too much. Just because you have 79 minutes available on a standard CD doesn’t mean you need to try to use all 79 minutes. Making an album that lasts only 45 minutes is perfectly acceptable. Aquemini clocks in just shy of 75 minutes. That means there’s some tracks that almost act as fillers or glorified B-sides. “Mamacita” is probably the best example of this and, consequently, is the worst song on this album. There’s maybe 2 other tracks that this album could do without, but, truth be told, I do applaud the attempt to try new things musically.
All is forgiven once we reach the end of the album. They close with, undoubtedly, the best song, “Chonkyfire”. With this song, they’ve distilled everything they’ve learned in the previous 68 minutes, and given us 6 minutes of exhilarating music. The P-Funk influence, a little trip-hop influence, some random dialogue, great lyrics that end with a shout-out to NY MC’s (by the way, for some reason I see it as a nice companion piece to Run-DMC’s classic “Rock Box” from their first album). And then, out of nowhere, they slow down the tempo and end it almost dead cold. I absolutely love it . It’s as if all album long, they smoked that killer government-sponsored G-13 weed and, right at the end, they took a pull off of some weed laced with angel dust and everything blurred right the fuck out. What makes this even better listening to now, is that Stankonia, their next album, seems to start, literally, 30 seconds later. Listen to it back to back and you can see exactly what I’m talking about.
My reminiscence factor for this album is low, 3 out of 10. I remember it being played around my ship in San Diego when I was in the Navy, but I didn’t really pay too much attention to it until later. I’ll admit, I was biased. Once I heard it was from the South, I basically disregarded it. I do remember thinking that “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)” was a pretty smooth song, but, other than that, I didn’t really get into this until years later.
Overall, Aquemini is an 8 out of 10 for me. Take out 2 or 3 songs and this is easily a 9 out of 10. Listening to this the last couple weeks has given me a greater appreciation for the greatness of Stankonia. Their progression from ATLiens to Aquemini to Stankonia is truly remarkable, not just from a hip hop standpoint, but from a musical standpoint. That leads me to my crazy theory.
Aside from a vast difference in historical and musical importance, I see an amazing and eerie similarity in OutKast’s 5-album stretch from ATLiens to Idlewild to The Beatles 5-album stretch from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road. Anyone reading this, initially, will probably think I took a hit off of Big Boi’s dust-laced weed, but I hope my case stated below will help you understand what I’m talking about. I will never be so bold as to say these 2 groups are in the same league (trust me, even suggesting this is a stretch for me), but the similarities in musical progression and group dynamics between both group’s 5-album stretches are uncanny. Nevertheless, I do feel when we look back at the history of hip hop in 40 to 50 years, we will talk glowingly about OutKast and how vital their music was to the genre. Aquemini was a damn good album for OutKast, but their best was yet to come.
*Let It Be
wasn’t actually released until 1970.