It’s 1998. Bill Clinton’s kinky infidelity has congressional zealots crooning from their moral soapbox. Silicon Valley is becoming a Mecca of excess for new economy computer geeks. Boy bands, quasi-Christian rock, and bling-style hip-hop rule the pop charts.
Thus enter OutKast.
Hearing “Rosa Parks” on the radio, sandwiched between posthumous Tupac and Biggie singles, Britney Spears, and jokes about Clinton’s taste in cigars, was like hearing an affirmation of our cultural sanity. No, the song was saying, commercial music doesn’t have to suck.
Mainstream hip-hop was on the cusp of outselling every other genre in the country, but it was in the middle of an artistic downward spiral. Part of what made Aquemini so incredible was its avoidance of underground hip-hop’s condescension; it didn’t have to rely on a polarizing aesthetic because it was as strange and different as Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. It was a loud, unpretentious, eclectic kick in the ass, and it made me, for one, love hip-hop again.
I grew up listening to Public Enemy, Ice Cube, De La Soul, early Pharcyde, early Tribe Called Quest, Y’All So Stupid — second and third generation hip-hop that didn’t need to put up a front of “maturity” (as the members of Pharcyde once described the difference between LabCabinCalifornia and Bizarre Ride II ThePharcyde), and wasn’t afraid to be balls out crazy, intense, or fun. Not to say that the jazz-fusion coffeehouse stuff didn’t need to happen, because Common and (post-Midnight Marauders) Tribe certainly had a huge impact on progressive hip-hop. But the way Pharcyde described maturity just seemed (and sounded) contrived.
Aquemini was probably the most forward-looking hip-hop record I’d ever heard. It was full of both fear and curiosity, and those emotions were channeled through its production. The epic, horn filled “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” (which probably has one of the best grooves of all time), and “Liberation”, were a far cry from “Synthesizer” or the Nightrider-esque “Skew It on the Bar-B”, but all were given equal weight. “Da Art of Storytellin’s” vocal distortion, “Chonkyfire’s” psychedelic guitar and synthesizer, and “Liberation’s” jazzed out melodies and percussion also challenged typical genre specifications. Likewise, the character distinctions between Andre and Big Boi, which the group had been pushing since day one, added an inclusive dimension to the group. Andre was a weirdo, Big Boi was a hustler, but hey! — they got along just fine, and they made kick ass music to boot.
Aquemini far surpassed OutKast’s previous release A-tliens, and made the group one of those rare commercial anomalies — kind of like Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, or Public Enemy. Its success since has been of the same nature. The fact that five years later OutKast can release Speakerboxxx and receive the kind of praise (even a plug from Wesley Clark) that it’s received blows my mind. Conceptually, ideologically and spiritually, the album is at odds with virtually everything else in top spots on Billboard charts. It was even pushed out of the number one spot by — how ridiculous is this — Toby Keith, the country artist who wants to hang terrorists from trees.
In retrospect, Aquemini defined that year of my life; and not just because I listened to it everyday or played it at as many parties as I could (so much so that I eventually had it stolen), but because it posed some critical questions about our country and about the future. Think about it: the tech collapse and economic depression were right around the corner, Bush was about to take office, and 9/11 was just a stone’s throw away. In a year where excess was romanticized by nearly everyone, OutKast was one of the few commercial groups concerned with more than just “the Benjamins”.