Published Fri, August 26, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
André and Big Boi had thrown their fans for a loop—in the best way. The Atlanta duo known collectively as OutKast dropped their classic sophomore album, ATLIENS, in 1996; and the pair had all-but-abandoned the teenage pimpery of their also-acclaimed debut album for something much more futuristic and outside-the-box. As they prepped their third album, it became clear that fans couldn't (and shouldn't) make any assumptions about where 'Kast would go next.
By 1998, the Dungeon Family was on a tremendous run. The Atlanta collective had been doing their thing since the early 1990s, but OutKast had truly set things in motion back in 1994, with their first album southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and their compadres Goodie Mob followed with Soul Food, their own classic 1995 debut. Those two albums were the big sellers, but the Dungeon Family had other, less commercial wins: Society Of Soul (a quintet that featured production trio Organized Noize, spoken word guru Big Rube and singer Esparonza Brown) released the stellar Brainchild the same year Goodie debuted; and Organized had also helmed monster hits for TLC ("Waterfalls") and produced the entirety of the soundtrack for the hit action film Set It Off in 1996. That same year, OutKast released ATLiens, charting a course for southern-bred Afrofuturism that would permeate more Dungeon Family releases throughout 1997 and 1998. Witchdoctor's ...A S.W.A.T Healin' Ritual and Goodie Mob's 1998 sophomore album Still Standing.
Change was happening within the Dungeon Family, however. Organized Noize had inked a major deal with Interscope, meaning the trio's talents were spread across several projects. Around the same time, André and Big Boi were becoming more comfortable producing themselves. Organized Noize's expertise and mentorship were still very present during the sessions for what would become OutKast's third album, but 'Kast (alongside their deejay, Mr. DJ) were coming into their own. And at a time when Hip-Hop was delving into familiar samples for big mainstream hits, OutKast took pride in their own unorthodox approach.
“We like to do ‘creative sampling,'” Big Boi said in 1998. “We’ll sample a horn riff or some type of drum kick or snare or anything. A hat. You’ll never know where it came from ’cause we alter it so much to fit what we doing that it’s OutKast.”
Throughout the project, OutKast would borrow elements from everything from Henry Mancini's Police Woman theme to an deep album cut from prog-rock legends Genesis; but the way it organically grew into something altogether different speaks to the creative sensibilities of Dre and Big. “We don’t do sampling where you can identify none of our music,” Big added.
“We bringin’ that funk back, like we always did from the first album,” André said. “This right here is extreme, OutKast-extreme.”
And the two high school friends were each evolving in his own way. Big Boi had become a father before OutKast dropped ATLiens, and was more of a homebody during the sessions for what would become Aquemini. Dre, was himself in a significant relationship with singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, and they would have a son, Seven, in fall of 1997. They convened for the Aquemini sessions with a bigger budget from their label, LaFace, and even bigger ambitions. They recruited a stable of session musicians to help flesh out their musical ideas, which would run the gamut from psychedelic rock to southern soul, future-pushing Hip-Hop, funk and even gospel. Under the watchful eye of Organized Noize, they'd turned into sonic savants of unbridled creativity.
The idea of Big Boi and André as these yin/yang rap characters had begun to grow root with ATLiens; but it first became most pronounced with OutKast's third album. Dre was now "André 3000" in name and persona, as his otherworldly aesthetic, P-Funk-esque fixation with costumes and his ever-changing approach to his own image made it easy for fans and commentators to brand him the artsy weirdo. Big Boi's more grounded, southern-friend ATL playa persona was presented as more street relatable; positioning him as the wizened pimp godfather in the duo's dynamic. And in naming their third offering "Aquemini" (a portmanteau of their respective astrological signs: Big Boi is an Aquarius; André a Gemini), it cemented the easy framing that would come to define OutKast: the poet and the player. But it was never truly that simple.
And on Aquemini, the unique chemistry between Antwon Patton and André Benjamin coalesced into something altogether brilliant. The album combines the earthy funk of southernplayalistic... with ATLiens' out-of-this-world futurism.
We bringin’ that funk back, like we always did from the first album. This right here is extreme: OUTKAST-EXTREME."
- André (1998 interview)
Produced by Organized Noize, Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon The Chef dropped in on the Manicini-sampling "Skew It On the Bar-B." The album's first radio single, it was the kind of cross-regional collaboration that was becoming more of a regular occurrence in the wake of the East-vs-West hype of the mid-1990s and the tragic murders of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. But where most of those pairings felt overthought, "Bar-B" never feels forced, quite the contrary; all three emcees are pushed to deliver some of their most impressive bars.
"Hold On, Be Strong" opened things on ghostly note. "I bought that kalimba at some flea market or music store and I just remembered hearing it on Earth Wind & Fire records," Dre would explain to Rodney Carmichael in 2010. "I just thought it was cool and started playing around with it. It was definitely improv. Donny [Mathis] played guitar, Preston [Crump] played bass and I think 4.0 was singing on it. Tony Hightower was in 4.0 and we've been friends since third grade, along with Cee-Lo. We all used to breakdance with each other and we ended up meeting each other again back at the Dungeon." And "Return Of the 'G'" saw the duo, particularly 3000, taking aim at those who couldn't quite understand the path that they were on.
The title track is one of the most cerebral and thoughtful tracks put to wax. As both rappers muse on commitment and community; Big Boi reflects on the bond between he and his partner while also chastising materialism and trend-hopping. Andre tells the story of neighborhood strain and suffering, set against his own contradictions. It's ghostly production comes courtesy of the group themselves.
"Da Art of Storytellin'" famously arrives in two parts, and both songs are standouts on an album with no shortage of classic material. It's rare to hear the sound of two artists peaking at the same time, but Dre and Big are connected on an almost cerebral level across what serves as the heart and soul of the album.
The remix version of "Part 1" served as the song's music video, a puppetry-driven romp that also features a guest appearance from lyrical legend, Slick Rick.
"West Savannah" was a "lost" track from the group's 1994 sessions, a solo Big Boi performance that highlights both how much they had changed in just four years, but also felt oddly at home amongst the forward-pushing songs it was nestled between. The album's most definitive single, "Rosa Parks" has become one of OutKast's most hailed tracks. As difficult as it is to pin down a quintessential 'Kast song, "Rosa Parks" effectively sums up so much of what made the Atlanta duo one of Hip-Hop's most uniquely infectious acts.
"I actually submitted that beat to [Diddy's old group] Total - 'cause I was going with Keisha from Total around that time - but they couldn't use it, so we ended up using it," Dre recalled in 2010. "By the time Aquemini came, I was stretching out as a producer. Big Boi was the family man. He had just had another kid, so he would come hang out at the studio and listen to the beats and make these big hooks. So it was a cool combination."
Throughout their history, it was Big Boi who often came up with OutKast's most indelible choruses. "Rosa Parks" was no exception.
"I took the beat home and I remember I was in my bedroom, and I was like, 'I got the hook!'" shared Big Boi. "I was playing the music loud as hell and I was just singing the hook: 'Aah-haah, hush that fuss!' Like, that's it, we need to lay it down. So then, you know how we use these metaphors, [so we named it] Rosa Parks. Boom. We always do stuff like that and shit just falls into place."
Of course, the song would become a source of controversy. Rosa Parks, the civil rights matriarch whose arrest after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. is credited with being a catalyst for the boycott of the bus system organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., filed a lawsuit against OutKast and LaFace Records citing defamation and trademark infringement. The case would linger for years, ultimately resolved via settlement in 2005. Parks died six months later.
I took the beat home and I remember I was in my bedroom, and I was like, 'I got the hook!' I was playing the music loud as hell and I was just singing the hook: 'Aah-haah, hush that fuss!'"
- Big Boi (CREATIVE LOAFING interview, 2010)
The album closes with a trifecta of musical landmarks: "SpottieOttieDopealicious" builds around an obscure percussive snippet from "Dancing In the Moonlit Knight" by Genesis, adding an immediately-distinct horn line and Dre and Big's spoken word observations about life in Atlanta, maturation and soul. With Sleepy Brown's cooing vocals on the opener, it's one of the highlights in OutKast's remarkable catalog. Likewise position towards the end of Aquemini, the somber "Liberation" features Cee-Lo, Erykah Badu and Big Rube, and evokes backwoods gospel as transmogrified by the Dungeon Family; as those distinctive keys and shimmering rides give the feel of an ethereal live performance. Funkin' on the moon; an interstellar revival.
And album closer "Chonkyfire" is pulsating with David Whild's guitar riff, and forever immortalized the infamous "South got somethin' to say" moment from the 1995 Source Awards. The last sounds you hear in the track come from that moment, when Salt-N-Pepa unenthusiastically announced that OutKast was the winner of the year's Best New Artist award. The boos rained down from the New York City-centric crowd, as OutKast, Goodie Mob and assorted D.F. members took the stage. By 1998, it was obvious that Dre's defiant pronouncement that day proved prophetic.
The album's distinctive artwork echoed ATLiens without repeating it; a celestial rendering of Dre and Big, complete with spaceships and Nubian goddesses in the clouds.
“André came over and played some tunes for me, and I kind of got the feel of it,” Gregory Hawkins explained to Columbus Alive in an interview earlier this year. “They were trying to have a ’70s vibe on it. They even had George Clinton on it … and I’m a big Parliament-Funkadelic fan. So, when I did the album cover, I tried to give it a ’70s feel with them guys in the bellbottoms and the pimp gear.”
Aquemini was another commercial success for OutKast, even though the album's singles were the group's lowest charting at the time. But the album was critically-acclaimed across-the-board. Raves in Rolling Stone and five mics from The Source. SPIN, the L.A. Times, Village Voice, and virtually every major music publication raved about the third album from the Dungeon Family's dynamic duo. It would be OutKast's final artistic statement before the new millennium, which would see 'Kast make the leap from southern Hip-Hop's most esoteric critical darlings to across-the-board superstars and mainstream icons in the wake of 2000s chart-busting Stankonia. But in leaning into their respective personas (while simultaneously countering them), OutKast pushed their art to a higher level.
As funky as it ever was.