Faith, Fear & Fuck Yous: Revisiting the Emotional Mastery of OutKast’s 'Aquemini'

OutKast’s third studio album was timeless, unique, and, looking back, one of the most important albums in hip-hop history.
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OutKast’s third studio album was timeless, unique, and, looking back, one of the most important albums in hip-hop history.

The most important rap albums are often the ones that make us the most uncomfortable. They are the albums that paint the world as flawed and chaotic, leaving us with ideas and concepts we may not be able to reconcile with on an initial listen. That discomfort often manifests itself in the artist first, acting as a catalyst for the uneasiness we as an audience then experience. Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s Yeezus, even for how beautifully sequenced and composed they were, are the furthest thing from easy listens. Whether it was Kendrick’s insecurity with being the voice of his generation or Kanye’s anger at the institutions that kept him in check, each album was a referendum on the way we the audience view the world after listening.

For most of their career, OutKast was viewed a group of invincible superheroes. The Atlanta duo—self-described ATLiens—often drifted past just being extraterrestrials from another much funkier planet and towards something more supreme. The kinetic energy of “Hey Ya” and “B.O.B,” the elation hearing “ATLiens” and “Git Up, Git Out,” and even the journeys to the darkest corners of our psyche on songs like “Elevators (Me & You)” are how we have always chosen to remember the undisputedly greatest rap duo of all-time, without ever needing to view the magic of André and Big Boi as anything other than infinite. It was only on Aquemini, however, the group’s third album, that OutKast reached for something emotionally uncomfortable and challenging to the very notion of their immortality as a group.

To categorize Aquemini as a specific type of rap album is damn near impossible, and it somehow manages to remain both far removed from and at the center of OutKast’s entire catalog. Wheres Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was chaotic and almost unsure of where its own confidence was leading, Aquemini challenged that bravado at every turn with tales of paranoia and terror. If the goal was once to “git up, git out and git something,” tracks like “Synthesizer” dared to ask those same headstrong dreamers, “Are we digging into new ground, or digging our own graves?”

Aquemini was also never as unconventional as ATLiens, nor was it as expansive and world-building as Stankonia. As each of those albums strove to find something finite and specific, musically speaking, Aquemini never confined itself to such parameters. Instead, its greatest strengths lay in the timelessness of both its themes and sounds. Aquemini was never an album that defined a specific piece of OutKast’s career, but one that captured the duo’s entire career in one record.

To call it a concept album would be derivative because that would ultimately limit the scope of what OutKast attempted to do. Aquemini was an album in the midst of an existential crisis, with both Big Boi and André exploring, and subsequently questioning, the full spectrum of their own emotions. Traditional concepts, ones that could be found en masse on their first two albums, would have been constricting for a project that found its brilliance in posing questions it didn't necessarily intend to answer. What happens when our own worlds eventually fall apart? What is true freedom? How do we find peace within ourselves? The blurriness of the answers left both them and us in a state of discomfort.

Through most of OutKast’s discography, no matter the subject matter, there was always an overwhelming sense of confidence in the way Big Boi and André addressed the world around them. On Aquemini’s opening two tracks, “Hold On, Be Strong” and “Return of the 'G',” it’s insecurity and anger that erode the valiant foundations their previous albums stood firmly on. With the former, “Hold On, Be Strong,” the title played less like an outgoing message to the audience and more like an inwardly-directed mantra of self-assurance; one that feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable as we the audience start to question the impenetrability of two of rap’s greatest superheroes. The latter only served to amplify that uneasiness, with “Return of the 'G'” acting as a giant “fuck you” to every critic and outside voice aiming to tear the accomplishments of OutKast down.

In an interview with Creative Loafing some years later, André 3000 spoke about the creation of “Return of the 'G'”:

“With Big Boi standing by me I knew I had to address some of the shit 'cause I can't have my homeboy looking bad. I knew a lotta people felt like Southernplayalistic was some of our hardest work and they felt like we strayed from that. So 'Return of the Gangsta' was trying to give them a sense of, 'Hey, I'm still a regular person.'

At the end of the day, you've still got to go through the same neighborhoods so sometimes you have to say stuff to let people know what it is. I'm a man so you can't say some of this stuff to me. The things in that verse were addressing all of that.”

When listening to the grooviness of the Girogio Moroder-sampled track, coupled with nothing short of sheer genius by an angered André 3000 lacing it with bars like, “Return of the gangsta thanks ta' / Them n***as that got them kids / That got enough to buy an ounce / But not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo / Or to the park so they grow up in the dark never / Seein' light 'til they end up being like yo' sorry ass / Robbin' n***as in broad day as daylight get down,” there is an energy in the verse unlike any previous OutKast track, and yet it still feels so strange. Never had such disdain for critics felt so self-conscious.  

It was the “impression of expression” that André found so important on “Return of The 'G',” and self-imposed questions like, “Big Boi what’s up with André? Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay? When y'all gon break up? When y'all gon wake up?” were what seemingly kept an emcee of previously exuded confidence up at night. It was in that “impression of expression” that OutKast, for the first time, found a gift and a curse in their own style. The duality of accepting the person you are becoming and perpetually reverting back to the person you always were; the two conflicting faces of one of rap’s greatest Geminis.

The album’s most radio-friendly track drifted away from the vengeful beginnings of the album. Rather than razor-sharp haymakers thrown at every enemy in sight, “Rosa Parks” took Aquemini in a much more upbeat direction, though only to an extent. The name “Rosa Parks” ultimately carried a pejorative meaning, and referenced fellow emcees getting to “the back of the bus,” in a manner of speaking, so that OutKast could lead the movement. Again, though, whether it was Big Boi’s boasts of, “Doing doughnuts 'round you suckas like them circles around titties,” or André’s self-reflection of OutKast’s lifespan as a group, the bravado only went so far. Their previous album’s most notable track, “ATLiens,” followed through with every ounce of cockiness it began with. This time around, even the most jovial moments like “Rosa Parks” felt like getting too faded at a party and ending up stuck in your own thoughts.

The discomfort on Aquemini didn't just lie within the group’s channeling of newly discovered emotional avenues of rage and insecurity, but also in the growing divergence in each of the men’s emotional perspectives. For as much as Aquemini the album was about the convergence of two competing identities, it was songs like the self-titled track, “Aquemini,” that ironically shed light on just how different the mindsets of Big Boi and André were becoming.

When asked about “Aquemini," Big Boi stated:

'Aquemini' was just the meshing of both worlds, with me being an Aquarius and him being a Gemini. It was subtle on ATLiens, but by the time we got to Aquemini it was like we had two different visions that were [parallel]. So the thing with us was to always show the team.

For as thoughtful as his quote was, it only revealed a portion of the truth behind one of the group’s most powerful songs to date. The eventuality of change weighed heavily on the verses of both men, with an entire hook laced with ideas about keeping the faith in one another no matter how inevitable things like death and fate may seem. However, “Aquemini” felt like an encapsulation of not only the way the rest of the album divided their separate perspectives but also of the eventual trajectory of OutKast; two individuals whom, once they stared into the crystal ball of the future, saw a path in hip-hop much different than the other.

For Big Boi, much of “Aquemini” was spent finding inspiration and channeling emotion through his own past. Between lessons to younger listeners ("Instead of going into overkill, pay your fuckin' beeper bill, bitch”) to lines like, “We prayed together through hard times and swung hard when it was fitting / But now we tappin' the brakes from all them corners that we be bending,” it was clear that a blurred mesh of contempt and appreciation for his past mistakes were going to be what defined his personal legacy.

For André, “Aquemini” felt like a much more forward-thinking therapy session, with the Gemini of the group wrestling with the notion of who he once was and who he feared he was becoming. In André’s mind, it was a point of clarity, bookended by a past filled with disingenuous institutions like religion and a future in which he would have to find his own acceptance through all of the criticism laid at his feet. Lyrics like, “Faith is what you make it” and “André, this is André, y'all are just gon' have to make amends,” showed that while Big Boi used his past as a compass for the future, André's faith in himself was all he would need.

That emotional divergence reappeared several times throughout the rest of Aquemini. “Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 1),” specifically, found Big Boi and André contemplating on characters of their own creation in many different fashions. While Big Boi’s verse stayed very much in the realm of mockery and contempt for his promiscuous Suzy Screw creation, it was André who created a character in Sasha Thumper, a doomed drug addict that felt like a reflection of himself.

In the second half of his verse, André raps:

“All of the bullshit we on our back staring at the stars above / Talking 'bout what we gonna be when we grow up / I said, 'What you wanna be?', she said, 'Alive' / It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes / I coulda died, time went on, I got grown / Rhyme got strong, mind got blown, I came back home / To find lil' Sasha was gone / Her mamma said she with a nigga that be treating her wrong / I kept on singing my song and hoping at a show / That I would one day see her standing in the front row / But two weeks later she got found in the back of a school / With a needle in her arm, baby two months due, Sasha Thumper”

The idea of life for André, on this album itself, weighed heavily on his writing in comparison to Big Boi’s, and it was in the fearful, introspective tale of a girl he hoped to one day save that we the listeners started to understand just how conflicted a person André was by this point.

Big Boi found his moments as well, with tracks like “Slump” and “West Savannah,” two competing perspectives of the same story that found him tapping into everything from his classic bravado to paranoia. With the former, the glory days of drug dealing were only as glorious as the company one kept, and even through his quintessential, buoyant style, there was a sense of melancholy in every bar. On the latter, Big Boi found his most thoughtful storytelling, with lyrics like, “They wanna be me and my family too / because the money that I make be puttin' cable off in every room,” showing that under his smooth exterior he could be as self-aware as his other half.

Aquemini never split off too far in either direction, however, and towards the album’s close, Big Boi and André once again were on the same wavelength. On songs like “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and “Y’All Scared,” the “trap” became an infatuation in the narrative of both artists, even if the concepts within their verses didn’t always match up.

On “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” the album’s most vibrant and kinetic song, neither emcee’s spoken word narrative, which involves everything from André’s odyssey to the club, to Big Boi’s story of transitioning from player to parent, felt too important until the song’s closing remarks. As Big Boi told us to “marinate on that for a second,” the idea of the “trap” began to formulate, and every ounce of world-building the two created shifted conceptually from whimsical to weighted.

On “Y’All Scared,” André’s verse about time lost on drugs reiterated the same notion of the trap; trapped within addiction, trapped within the political discussion of drugs, and, more than anything, trapped within one’s own fears. As we heard on the following track, “Nathaniel,” a song that’s only verse came from an incarcerated Supa Nate, the fear that Aquemini dealt with through much of the album was always for the purpose of teaching. It was in those heartbreaking bars from a close friend of the duo that both looking back and focusing on the future converged into a much more important lesson: whether you find inspiration from your past or the idea of your future, never become “trapped” within yourself.

What Aquemini also delivered on by its close, specifically on its last two tracks, “Liberation” and “Chonkyfire,” was the eventual freedom of the mind that one can possess when they are emotionally ready. “Liberation,” looking back, was more than likely the moment we as listeners should have known OutKast was never destined to last forever. Liberation, in their minds, meant the freedom to follow their artistic “impression of expression,” and within each of their journeys, they found that personal freedom was limitless, but never conditional to the group’s lifespan.

What convergence taught them, in essence, is just how different they really were. On “Return of the 'G,'” André lamented about always searching for a peace of mind. It wasn’t until “Liberation” that he actually seemed to find it.

From that liberation, however, came the extended freedom that OutKast could be anything they wanted to be at any time, with or without our approval or understanding, and “Chonkyfire” was the direct message. Through its piercing electric guitar riffs and emboldened synths, “Chonkyfire” became the second “fuck you” OutKast needed on Aquemini, except this time it came without emotional baggage. André’s line, “Now hold on my brother no, no, no, no, can't stop the stride,” was never a warning to future emcees, but a signed declaration of the conquest of hip-hop’s terrain by the ATLiens.

Our discomfort with Aquemini will always be with how we were forced to view OutKast afterward, and that is what made it brilliant. Within 16 tracks, Big Boi and André found faith within both their pasts and themselves, confronted their biggest fears, and bookended the emotional transformation of OutKast with two middle fingers. Through it all, they weaved in and out of converged emotional concepts on songs, only to, at many points, find their best musical selves far and away from one another, emotionally speaking.

Looking back, it feels prophetic, and the freedom of later OutKast projects like Speakerboxxx/The Love Below feel impossible without it. It was an album that challenged each of the two men to uncover emotions surrounding their entire lives, and although it would ultimately contextualize the lifespan of OutKast as a group, the experience of Aquemini remains timeless.  

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