#500-Outkast-Aquemini-1998

The Artists:

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Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton met for the first time at the Lenox Mall in Atlanta, Georgia in 1992.  They were both 16 years old and schoolmates at Tri-Cities High School in the East Point area of Atlanta.

Tri-Cities High is to 90’s Hip Hop and R&B what San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic is to Major League Baseball.

Future Shortstops of America

Not only did the duo that would become Outkast walk the halls of Tri-Cities High, but so did the members of TLC and Xscape as well as Khujo and Big Gipp who would team with T-Mo and Cee Lo Green to form Goodie Mob.

Benjamin and Patton began hanging out with their Goodie Mob friends and the studio of Rico Wade, who along with Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray were known as the Organized Noize production company.

Wade had begun producing for TLC and through their connection with Wade, Benjamin and Patton were signed to LaFace Records before the end of 1992, the first hip hop artists signed to the label.  Their first recording was rapping on the remixed version of “What About Your Friends?” by TLC.

Benjamin and Patton would now be known as Outkast and go by their nicknames Dre and Big Boi.  While still in their teens, their first single “Player’s Ball” was released in late 1993 and hit #1 on the Billboard Rap Chart.

Their first album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was released in 1994.

They gave a different perspective on the black experience than most of what was being heard in rap at the time, with lyrics that spoke from the southern point of view, mixing in regionally specific slang.  They also mostly used live musicians instead of sampling.

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is a surprisingly mature album considering the duo were still teenagers, especially the fact that much of the album’s lyrics show a social concern, not something you would expect from high schoolers raised on gangster rap.  Even at their young age, Outkast already had their own sound and style.

Two years later Outkast released ATLeins.

ATLiens contains some of the more challenging lyrical content in mid-90’s hip hop.  I don’t buy much into the idea that what makes ATLiens stand out is that it has a  more “space age” feel to it.  While there is a bit of that, what stands out to me is that it is actually even more of a socially conscious album than their debut. The album was an immediate hit, debuting at #2 on the Billboard albums chart and ultimately sold over 2 million copies.

It was at this point that Outkast went back into the studio to record their third album and combined everything that they learned from their first two albums.  Not only was Outkast more mature, but hip hop was in a different place than where it was in 1996.  2Pac and Biggie were both dead and while hip hop was still amongst the most popular music, it was definitely in a different, some may say less artistic place than it was just a year or so earlier.

On September 29, 1998, Outkast released Aquemini.  While they had already found success with fans of hip hop with their first two albums, this album would skyrocket Outkast to mainstream success and helped put the duo among hip hop’s elite.

The Album Cover:

The cover to Outkast’s third release uses a drawing with Dre and Big Boi looking more like a 70’s funk duo rather than a 90’s rap group.

The title of the album is a portmanteau of Big Boi’s (February 1, Aquarius) and Dre’s (May 27, Gemini) zodiac signs.  The cover uses this as its main motif.

You can see the wheel of zodiac signs in the background.

The Aquarius Waterbearer

The Gemini Twins

The Aquarius and Gemini Signs

The cover also makes reference to the two previous albums with a Cadillac representing Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
and a flying saucer representing ATLiens.

 

The back cover shows the zodiac signs combined as one aka Aquemini

The Album:

I am reviewing the 3 LP vinyl release of Aquemini, released in 1998, although I also will make note of the differences on the original CD version of the album.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs)

The album opens with an almost Gregorian chant with “Hold on, Be Strong.”

Track 2 is “Return of the ‘G’” a song addressing how some critics and fans were attacking Outkast for being (gasp) different other hip hop acts in how they weren’t gangstas.  It samples a slowed down version of Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Express Theme, which is awesome in itself.

I like the theme much more than the film.

“Return of the ‘G'” is great.  That is followed by an interlude with some record store chatter.  I already know I’m not going to like these interludes, but I know these talking interludes are a long time staple of hip hop.

Next is the album’s biggest hit “Rosa Parks” this was the first thing from Outkast that I was aware of and an all time classic.  It was one of my favorites for a long time.  It uses a lot of Atlanta slang that I’m not sure I understand.  It has a great bass line and a recurring “Trouble bubble” sound.  I’m not sure if it is a sample from “More More More” by the Andrea True Connection or not. The title caused the real life civil rights pioneer to bring a lawsuit against Outkast for profiting off of her name.

You bitches better have my money!

We have another conversation of nonsense as an interlude before the next song starts.  “Skew It on the Bar-B” might be my favorite song off of this album now.  Raekwon from Wu Tang Clan takes the second verse on this one.

Raekwon the Chef, apparently about to bake a cake, looks like he spilled a little flour there.

It uses a sample of the Police Woman TV theme.  According to Raekwon, it was this song that caused East Coast Hip Hop fans to take notice of Outkast, as many had been ignoring the music coming out of the South.  Raekwon says his appearing on the album is what brought them to the forefront.  I like Raekwon, but I think that’s debatable as they were already an established entity by the time this album was released.

Side B opens with the title track “Aquemini” a song about Dre and Big Boi’s partnership. It is mostly about how Dre and Big Boi have two different visions, when brought together, make fantastic music.  A cool track with a “futuristic” sounding opening and Dre and Big Boi exchanging verses spelling out their personal visions.

Synthesizer” starts out with a short Frankenstein-esque interlude.  Dre sings rather than raps, with a weird auto-tune high pitch addition to his voice, which I don’t care for too much.  George Clinton guests on this one with a spoken word part and a some of the background parts. Not the best track on the album, although I do like the beat and the synth in the background.  The best part of the song is the doo-wop-esque vocal harmony section at the very end of the song.

There is another nothing interlude which just sounds like a guy overcharging another guy for weed. “Slump” is a little prescient of the next album Stankonia.   Andre does not appear on this track as Big Boi works with two other guys, Backbone and Cool Breeze. Even though he himself is not on the track, Dre’s son, Seven, appears as the soundbite of a baby cooing in the background.  I’m guessing that Dre didn’t take George Costanza up on his offer of naming his kid.

Big Boi introduces the next song, which was originally produced for their first album, however on the vinyl version that introduction concludes side B and the song he introduces, “West Savannah” opens up side C, which is on a whole different disc, kinda odd.  It reminds me of the first Once Upon a Time in America DVD which is split into 2 discs, and for whatever reason is not split at the intermission, but just in a random spot in the movie.

“West Savannah” is a pretty good song. Even without the announcement on the album that it was from the first album, I still would have been able to tell that it was from a prior era, as it is a little basic and rough around the edges.  Andre doesn’t appear on this one, either.  These two songs sorta preview what would come later with the guys doing their own songs on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Another worthless interlude, with a guy calling a girl on the phone.  Can we just get to the songs or at least have interludes that have something to do with the song?

Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 1” a cool story song.  Big Boi telling a story about being responsible and not banging a groupie and Dre telling a story of a childhood crush that dies of an overdose.  It has an almost hypnotic synthesized beat in the background. I dig this one a lot.

We get another interlude with a grandmother talking to two of her grandchildren about not being afraid of thunder. More of nothing.

Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 2” is a pretty awesome track with Andre seemingly rapping through a megaphone.  The hook seems to be a sample from a Gregorian Chant or maybe it is just vocals slowed down.  The rapping is so fast and a lot of it is purposely distorted to the point that I have no idea what they say in the song. Reading the lyric sheet the last line Big Boi says in his part is “The beat was very dirty and the vocals had distortion.”  Tell me about it.  They were going for a post-apocalyptic feel to this track as they are talking  about the end of the world and Dre has said that wanted to write a song that sounded like it was the last recording made before the end of the world.

I like that idea better than the world’s last song being “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.”

Side D starts with “Mamacita,” it sounds like an ode to picking up and sexing up Latina girls.  It doesn’t sound like an Outkast song at all.  The “Mamacita, Papadonna” refrain is kinda annoying after a while.  One verse is rapped by Dugeon Family member Withdoctor and his part doesn’t work for me. The story behind the song is interesting in that the female rapper, Masada, recorded her part to be a part of her own song produced by Organized Noize, but Dre heard the track and wrote a song around her verse and the “Mamacita, Papadonna” refrain.  Masada said she didn’t know they had used her on a track until they paid her a royalty check for appearing on the album.

A great track, “SpottieottieDopalicious” opens with the line “Damn, Damn, Damn, Damn” which immediately reminds me of Florida on Good Times when her husband died.

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It has a horn break that sounds like an Earth, Wind and Fire track.  The song is also reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield, in fact Sleepy Brown sings a verse in which he sounds exactly like Curtis.  I like the end of Big Boi’s part where he is talking about how someone is trying to get away from selling drugs, but can’t get a job with UPS or the post office because there are drugs in their system, which leads to and endless loop of having to go back to illegal activity.  This is a really awesome track.

Side E opens with “Y’all Scared” which has Goodie Mob opening up the track song about whites are now scared that drugs and violence have moved into their lives.  I like that they name drop Gil Scott-Heron, one of my absolute favorites, and someone who I would’ve like to have seen have an album in the Rolling Stone 500, although I they are referencing that his name sounds like heroin.  It’s a little darker in tone than most Outkast tracks and really it has more of an ATLiens feel to it than Aquemini.

Chonkyfire” almost sounds like Outkast is giving their audience a free preview of what was coming on their next album, Stankonia.  I’m not sure what the sample is or even if anything is being sampled, but I feel like I recognize it.  It has some of the best instrumentation on the album with a fuzz guitar. Cool track.

Oddly, “Chonkyfire” is the closing track on the CD, but on the vinyl release it is moved up two spots.  My guess is that they wanted “Nathaniel” to flow into “Liberation” and didn’t want just one song on Side E.

The funniest interlude is placed here, with a guy trying to return an opened CD that doesn’t play right, but he can’t get a refund since it is opened.

I feel that guy’s pain. And I only paid $1.99 for this.

Side F starts with “Nathaniel” which is one Outkast’s friends, Supa Nate, doing a rap on a phone call from prison and they recorded the track on tape and added it to the album.  It was an interesting idea, and cool to hear the ambient sound in the background and I like the fact that it flows into the record’s closing track “Liberation.” It features two of the most soulful voices aorund, Cee Lo Green and Erykah Badu, amongst others.  It’s a laid back mixture of hip hop, gospel, and blues which uses stereo beautifully and gives great depth to the voices on separate tracks. It is the longest track on the album, an epic of sorts, as it runs almost 9 minutes. A nice ending to the vinyl version of the album.

I actually think the placement of “Liberation” at the end on the vinyl album actually works better than as the second to last song on the CD, especially since the CD actually ends with that interlude with the guy trying to return the CD to the store, while its kinda funny, it ends the CD on a bit of a whimper.

Outkast truly upped their game with this album, and almost ever track is great and they really show how intelligent they are with their lyrical content.  This would lead them to even more success in the future.

Aftermath:

Aquemini was almost universally acclaimed as a masterpiece and has continued to be included on lists of greatest albums of the 90’s and all time greatest rap albums.  Just like ATLiens, Aquemini debuted at #2 on the Billboard album chart, quickly going platinum and within a year, going double platinum.

Outkast had an idea to make a film to go with the album that would be produced by MTV, apparently they had a screenplay written, but MTV didn’t think they were big enough names to be the lead in a movie, so that idea didn’t pan out.

In 1999, they got a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “Rosa Parks.”

They would then spend the next two years working on another album that would become an instant classic.  I will get to the rest of the Outkast story with entry #355.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take:

RS:“At a time when formulaic albums by Master P and Puff Daddy topped the charts, Outkast unleashed an explosive hip-hop that deployed live musicians, social commentary and a heavy dose of deep funk. Hits like “Rosa Parks” put the duo’s hometown “Hotlanta” on the rap map.”

I can’t disagree with a majority of what Rolling Stone says here, as a lot of it is what I have already said in my review.  The only thing I’d disagree with is that they already had put Atlanta on the “rap map” from their first two albums, as it was this album that put them on the mainstream music map.

Conclusion:

Outkast delivered with Aquemini adding tons of funk with their usual social consciousness to mainstream hip hop.  If hip hop had been fully formed instead of in an embryonic stage in the 70’s, this is what it would have sounded like.  I understand that the talking interludes were Dre’s idea of making the album a time capsule, expressing everyday life in 1998.  No matter what his reasoning was to include them, I still feel they interrupt the flow and detract from the overall enjoyment of the album.

The more I listened to Aquemini, the more I enjoy it.  There will be even bigger successes in their future, but they were already at a high point here.  The interludes feel unnecessary, along with a couple weak tracks like “Mamacita” Aquemini is not quite a five-star album in my view, but still it is a close call as it is great.

4.5 out of 5 Stars, highly recommended.

Beginning with the next entry I will re-rank the Rolling Stone 500.

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