It’s unclear why rappers never make a big deal about living up to OutKast’s legacy. Granted, André 3000 and Big Boi are blessedly still with us, unlike the legends most often name-checked as anxious influences. Maybe up-and-comers feel illegitimate trying to lay claim to a throne that’s still ostensibly occupied. Then again, maybe the duo’s most defining aspect, their winning teamwork, rightly strikes young turks as essentially impossible to replicate. Nevertheless, you’d think that a few more people would mention Aquemini, released 10 years ago today, while slobbering all over Ready to Die and Illmatic. Living legends deserve some saliva too.
So let’s spit: Ten years on, Aquemini is the single strongest aspect of one of the art form’s deepest benches. Snappier and more experimental than the pair’s early work, and focused enough to feel comfortable in a sprawl, it’s the moment when OutKast came fully into itself—and in some ways, the beginning of its end. This record marks the moment when Andre and Big Boi came into their own as producers. And though its sonics are still suffused with Organized Noize’s molasses-thick funk, they’re also spiced with the complementary/divergent tones favored by the main men themselves. Eventually, this polarity would lead the duo to release a double album that was essentially a set of solo records. But here, on an album they named for the combination of their astrological symbols, Andre and Big Boi were still rhyming to the same beat.
“Return of the G” begins the record by rehearsing the divide at the center of OutKast—between Andre’s avant impulses and Big Boi’s more comfortable, though still complex, gangstadom. At the album’s outset, Andre rails against the people whose gangster decisions (buying drugs instead of feeding one’s kids) he dismisses in favor of eccentricity—“another black experience.” He parrots them: “What’s up with Andre? Is he into coke? Is he on drugs, is he gay? When ya’ll gon’ break up? When ya’ll gon’ wake up?/Nigga, I’m feelin’ better than ever. What’s wrong with you? Get down!” “Get down” does double duty, both dismissal and groove imperative. Andre’s gangsta aspects must return “thanks ta” the various criticisms and stresses advanced by Atlanta life. It’s something to be mourned, as the song’s tone bears out—loping, mournful, full of harps, chorales, and New Orleans funeral horns. Big Boi’s considerably less conflicted: He’s “willin’ to rob, steal, and kill any thang that threatens mine.” Yet his verse is also the one keyed to the partnership at the heart of OutKast’s appeal: “Stickin’ together like flour and water to make that slow dough.”
The track outros on a skit, and like most of OutKast’s skits, it’s a particularly trenchant caricature, this time of the kind of rejection the album intends to spite. Set in a record store tended by a person who knows his customers’ tastes and something about his inventory (which already seems fairly dated, sadly), it features the following perspective on OutKast: “At first they was pimps, man. Then they was some aliens, some genies or some shit. Then they be talking bout that black rights in space, man. Whatever. Fuck them, I ain’t fuckin’ with them no mo’.” When listening to Aquemini, it’s tempting to tune this interlude out; after all, it seems to mostly serve to pass the time between two of a great band’s greatest songs. But it is in some ways a distillation of OutKast’s approach on this record: confident yet paranoid, fiercely parochial yet also willing to dispense with the conventional wisdom of loyalists at the drop of a hat. It’s the kind of bravery that seems inevitable.
It’s a little unfair to listen to “Rosa Parks” with full perspective on the group’s eventual, somewhat unpredictable takeover of the universe (frat party division). Or rather, it’s a little misleading. “Rosa Parks” sounds, of course, like a massive hit—the kind of track that ignites dance floors and cracks asphalt with bass impact and changes the course of cultural history. Maybe the hook (“Ah ha ha/Hush that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus”) is a little too abstract for its own good? In any case, the track peaked at #55 on the Hot 100 (with a bullet!) and is probably best known for having revealed the extent to which Ms. Parks was in thrall to rapacious lawyers. Nevertheless, I fucking dare you to listen to it without moving your ass and grinning like something very stupid—especially the part where time and space warps to accommodate Andre’s flow in the second verse. And the ping pong echo of a kick drum. And, um, the harmonica solo. (Incidentally, Aquemini features probably the most credible blends of hip-hop and country on record—no offense, Bubba Sparxxx. Also, I’m not sure, but it’s possible that the song features the first textual appearance of the sword “crunk,” which Merriam Webster hilariously defines as “a word of fluctuating meaning used during the 1990s in lyrics of the rap group OutKast…”).
The enduring tragedy of OutKast’s apparent and perhaps inevitable parting of the ways derives from the fact that once upon a time, Andre and Big Boi seemed inseparable, unstoppable, forever. They promised to be. “Aquemini” is not the only place this promise was made, but it’s probably the best support point. It centers around a timelessly mysterious hook, rests atop one of the finer trip-hop beats ever exhaled, and posits a platonic ideal: “Nothing is for certain/And nothin’ lasts forever/But until they close that curtain, it’s just him and I—Aquemini.” The track finds the pair in characteristic synch. It’s long, but never long enough.
“Aquemini” is bookended by two tracks that offer an interesting meta-commentary on the group’s unity in division. That they flank their statement of fluxing constancy with duets with Raekwon (“Skew It on the Bar-B”) and George Clinton (“Synthesizer”) says a lot about the state of their union. Raekwon alternates between nihilism and scintillating verbal pointillist abstraction, so in some ways it makes sense to think of him as being a one-man OutKast. But he’s a proponent of the Wu-Tang gangsta worldview, so let’s put him in Big Boi’s camp. In the other corner, we have George Clinton—the galactic highfather of g-funk, the man who exerted probably the single greatest influence on OutKast’s sound, and a G if there ever was one. Boi’s style owes Mr. Clinton something major, but let’s slot him with Andre as a wild-eyed no-fuck-given revolutionary. So: George Clinton and Raekwon, the yin and yang and yang and yin, examples both of the wide chasm between Andre and Boi and the tiny leap necessary to bridge it. The songs are still murderous too, incidentally.
As is, perhaps predictably, the rest of the record. What a menu! Would you like a wide-shouldered, generous R&B epic meditating on the meaning of freedom and featuring Cee-Lo and Erykah Badu in finest form? “Liberation” is for you. Deep horn-studded dub arrayed precisely for bong intimacy? “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” has your number. Grinding, mildly confusing, out of place, and kind of stupidly strident stabs at Latin flavor? Sorry, “Mamacita,” nobody’s perfect. Well, okay, “The Art of Storytelling (Parts 1 and 2)” is. Especially the bit bridging the two parts where rainstorm sound effects and an alarm clock launch us into a distorted Andre rant riding the group’s most dramatic beat ever. And the fact that the paired tracks are yet another (reasonably unsubtle) riff on duality—the concept that drives this record and which made OutKast the greatest hip-hop band ever. Yeah, that’s perfect. Okay.