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20 Years of Blending the Classic and Inventive in Outkast’s ‘Aquemini’

For most early 2000s babies, Outkast evokes an earlier era of rap old enough to never have been one of our collective phases at school but recent enough to make us feel nostalgic. Something about Outkast riles up my friends when the odd song comes on at a party in a way that most ‘90s and 2000s music can’t, be it André 3000’s vibrant rapid-fire vocals or the underlying beats that cannot have been much more conventional during Outkast’s peak than they are now.

Sept. 29th marked the 20-year anniversary of the release of “Aquemini,” the rap duo’s third album, which was certified RIAA Double Platinum and on the Rolling Stone’s list of top 500 albums. Aquemini comes a long way from Outkast’s 1996 sophomore album “ATLiens,” which contains more synthetic, extraterrestrial-inspired background noise and mellow melodies. Like “ATLiens,” it maintains Outkast’s newfound prevalence in the hip hop scene and marks the start of a definitive upward trend and strong spell in Outkast’s discography, paving the path for “Stankonia” and “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” which contain the timeless hits “Ms. Jackson,” “The Way You Move,” and “Roses.”

“Aquemini” draws upon a variety of musical traditions and presents them in a form that offers us a zeitgeist of a certain late ‘90s American South, versatile in its appeal to admirers of funk, hip hop, rap, and gospel, from “Old school players to new school fools,” as sung in “Skew It on the Bar-B.” Initially, Outkast was applauded for breaking a glass ceiling for Southern rappers who had been evaluated within the context of the New York rap that had prevailed in the previous couple of decades and that had been credited with establishing and popularizing the genre. Through their encapsulation and legitimization of diverse styles and demolition of the borders that existed around hip hop, Outkast made many traditions adoptable by future artists.

“Aquemini” takes off with a characteristic Outkast minute-long introductory track, with minimal lyrics and mood-setting instrumentals, including light guitar and xylophone, accompanied by “hold on, be strong” sung as an uplifting hymn. It then moves straight into “Return of the ‘G,’” instrumentally slow and heartfelt but with a much heavier beat, a synth background, and a bluesy chorus that layers the words “gangsta” and “return.”

“Aquemini” demonstrates an admirable adroitness in blending lyrics of varying gravity and theme. “Return of the ‘G’” criticizes addiction and crime in the context of parenthood alongside crafty retorts to those who want them to conform to rap clichés or abandon unconventional styles — “[they] say y’all be gospel rappin’/ But they be steady clappin’ when you talk about / Bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed.” “West Savannah” tells the story of Big Boi’s upbringing in his grandmother’s care while his young mother worked and of his revered teenage years dealing drugs to “be puttin cable off in every room.” Finally, bare but powerful lyrics speaking to the “fine line between love and hate” come from the chorus of “Liberation,” featuring Cee-Lo Green.

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The experimentation with the old and the new in “Aquemini” is bold, whether the slightly distasteful baby talk in the otherwise smooth song “Slump,” the catchy trumpet in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” the conversation at the end of the recording of “Rosa Parks,” or the screechy background noise in “Synthesizer.” “Rosa Parks” is a personal favorite — it brings a hollow beat akin to clapping, ‘90s record scratching and turntable sound effects, and layered funk-inspired vocals, in addition to a bridge with a lively harmonica. It creates a high energy unlike anything the Outkast created prior, and that they manage to recreate in hit songs like “B.O.B.” and “Hey Ya!” of “Stankonia” and “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” These songs of “Aquemini” not only set a precedent for their later albums, but for the future of rap and hip hop in encouraging similarly inventive and adoptive styles, as well as a new receptiveness to variety and experimentation among music consumers and critics.

In listening and relistening to “Aquemini,” I couldn’t help but draw parallels to specific songs by both modern hip hop artists I listen to now, from Kendrick Lamar to Frank Ocean — it’s clear that these artists are very unlike Outkast, but both have certain aspects that reflect the their style, like the funk elements of “To Pimp a Butterfly” or the editing of Frank Ocean’s instrumentals in certain songs on “channel ORANGE.” Unlike Michael Jackson or David Bowie, Outkast may never be named one of the most influential artists of a century, but the duo has a quieter legacy, such as the new convention of unconventionality.

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