OutKast has been in the news a lot this year for their reunion tour, so it seems only fitting to use this opportunity to post Aquemini, one of the four albums that the group's diehard fans frequently cite as their best. Yes, that's right: four. Usually fans can narrow artists' output down to one or two certified "classics," but OutKast is one of the rare modern artists whose fans regularly include more than three albums in the discussion. Of the four in question, Aquemini is definitely the most psychedelic and maybe the most experimental.
Released in 1998, the album centered on Big Boi and André 3000's bond, with its title being a portmanteau of their Zodiac signs (Aquarius and Gemini, respectively) and the title track including the unforgettable refrain:
Nothin' is for sure, nothin' is for certain, nothin' lasts forever
But until they close the curtain, it's him and I - Aquemini
In the wake of OutKast's long hiatus, these lyrics aren't as powerful as they once were, but they're still integral to Aquemini. This is where the dichotomy between Big Boi and André's styles became apparent, with the former spearheading hard-nosed gangsta rap tracks like "Slump" (the first OutKast track to feature a verse by Big Boi without an accompanying one by André), and the latter's explorative fingerprints all over oddities like "Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 2)" and "Synthesizer." Were it any other group, you might say they were struggling to find a signature sound, but for OutKast, constant reinvention was the name of the game.
This is a group that followed a skit about their inconsistent sound with their biggest stylistic deviation yet -- the guitar and harmonica-driven "Rosa Parks," a veritable hoedown of a hip hop song -- and then decided to make that song a single. Like most of their pre-Idlewild work (no one, not even OutKast can make a Prohibition era-themed hip hop album), it paid off, charting higher than anything else on Aquemini. This must have been the point when people began wondering if there was anything the group couldn't do.
While Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik succeeded within the previously-drawn sonic lines of early '90s hip hop, and ATLiens brought a more minimal, spacey sound, Aquemini was where the funk took hold. George Clinton guests on the aforementioned "Synthesizer," and the influence of his bands Parliament and Funkadelic pervade the rest of the album. OutKast even brought in studio musicians who played "everything from stoner funk to prog rock" and improvised with them during he writing process. In particular, the songs "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" and "Liberation" take this approach so far that they begin to resemble funk and R&B far more so than hip hop.
In some ways, Aquemini is a work of art that relies too heavily on distinctive personalities, regional ties and a top-notch in-house production team (shout out to Organized Noize!) to ever be imitated. There have been other great artists that meld hip hop and funky, live instrumentation, with artists like The Roots and Flying Lotus springing to mind, but none so singular and Southern as OutKast. The duo would go on to release Stankonia two years later before the Big Boi / André contrast manifested itself in two separate albums on Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, but Aquemini is that thrilling first moment when you realize that the two personalities in OutKast are much more distinct than say, Phife and Q-Tip, Dre and Snoop, or even Kanye and Jay Z. It's the sound of perfectly-regulated artistic struggle, and it might never be replicated.