By Steve Weinstein
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Doubtful Rock called Outkast country to their face after their recent appearance on the Chris Rock Show, but they might have taken it as a backhanded compliment. A hip-hop hoedown complete with live band, a harmonica break played by a real-live preacherman, and white-gloved male dancers doing an odd cross between popping-and-locking and a foot-stomping jig, Outkast's "Rosa Parks" performance was unapologetically country-fried, a pointed fuck y'all to anyone who ever dismissed the artistic potential of Southern hip-hop. Big Boi, in macking fur coat and sports jersey ensemble, kept it street with rhymes about "doing doughnuts round you suckas like them circles around titties." Dre tried to "activate the left and right brain," space-ghetto fabulous in beauty-parlor Afro-puffs, white fur hoodie, grass hula skirt, ski boots, and striped Witchypoo socks. "Hey," he drawled afterward. "Y'all smell that?"
At a time when a muthafuckin' Annie jack is confused with innovation (see Jay-Z's noxious "Hard Knock Life" single), Outkast ambitiously twist cosmic rhymes, dirty funk grooves, head-nodder's beats, and astral sound effects into a cryptic symphony that creaks with history and church tradition even as it careens into the future. Like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Aquemini dumps rap's singles obsession for a concept album aesthetic (about bringing together hip-hop's schizoid soul, no less), and swaps the Puff Squad's AM cheese fixation for the black FM radio of the '70s. Outkast salute Curtis, Marvin, and Isaac, but they owe their biggest debt to P-Funk: not "Atomic Dog" sample #397, but working closely with the extended Organized Noize family to capture the same experimental, anything-goes spirit, its hermetically sealed weirdness.
The rise of Master P signified that the battle for rap's commercial supremacy was shifting from East vs. West to North vs. South. Outkast, along with fellow Dungeon Crew soldiers Goodie Mob, could give a hootie-hoo; they just want to make you believe in hip-hop again, though they've gone platinum twice in the process (and Aquemini debuted at No. 2). Since the Fugees deflated, even reformist hip-hop lacks a middle ground, pitting pimp purists like Jay-Z against beats-and-rhyme indie classicists like Black Star. Outkast can't see why they can't have it both ways (or win over both audiences): the duo peg themselves "the player" (Big Boi) and "the poet" (Dre), offering their yin-yang up as an ever-twisting dialogue, two distinct characters uniting to create something complex and new.
The word Aquemini conflates the duo's astrological signs, Aquarius (Big Boi), and Gemini (Dre), which, I'm sure, was Dre's goofy idea. Big Boi, steadfastly "slummin'," raises pit bulls and raps evocatively about nines and ounces and the gangsta slouch. Dre, who was born a crack baby, is a loner vegan babe who dresses like he shops in George Clinton's hamper and raps like he just beamed down from the U.S.S. Enterprise. Big Boi hangs at strip clubs; Dre hangs with Nubian queen Erykah Badu. Big Boi drives a Caddy; Dre drives an old yellow VW Bug. Big Boi is down-home humble; Dre is naturally aristocratic.
Sounds like the premise for a new WB sitcom. But Outkast aren't so Malcolm and Eddie simple, refusing to pass moral judgment on each other and trading roles with ease. Big Boi drops the occasional love poetry ("The way she moved reminded me of a brown stallion horse with skates on, smooth like a hot comb on nappy-ass hair"--the ladies love animal similes!) and Dre can be a badass, an undeniably vicious MC rapping metaphysical verses booty-fast over slow, lazy beats. Fending off rumors that he's (a) on drugs, (b) gay, and (c) an extraterrestrial cult leader, he chides, "Don't get caught in appearance, it's Outkast . . . another black experience." Messing with identity stereotypes can lead to a state of Arrested Development, but Big Boi's hardcore backbone keeps the boho effect in check. When he wants to gangsta trip (see his solo "West Savannah"), Dre just stays out of the way.
Generally righteousness-leaning, the duo stress taking care of your kids, holding your fire, and, uh, avoiding liposuction, cloning, and virtual reality (see the robotic, Unabomber-ish George Clinton duet "Synthesizer"). But there's a profoundly ambivalent quality to Aquemini, a sense of push and pull, of denial and self-implication, that reminds me of Biggie's "sensitive thug" opus Ready To Die. Outkast are too similarly obsessed with fate, traps, and double binds to ever really preach: they spend a poignant eight minutes soul-singing about "Liberation" with Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo and Lady Ms. Badu, but they're equally willing to shrug that "niggas ain't gone change." Like RZA's best songs, Outkast's music is willfully opaque even as the haunting, cinematic instrumentation seems to drip with clues. On the first song, "Return of the G," an ominous chiller that incorporates Giorgio Moroder's "Midnight Express," a Moog bass, and orchestral strings, Dre blames the return of the gangsta on "niggas . . . who'd rather be bouncing and shooting" when he'd rather talk about "time travelin', rhyme javelin, something mind unraveling." Then Big Boi breaks in "willing to rob, steal, and kill any thang that threatens mine." Is Dre asserting his don'tfuckwithme G-thing or making excuses for Big Boi? Is Big Boi serious or merely watching his freaky friend's back?
Outkast are idealistic, but they're not stupid. For Aquemini, they anchor the cosmic headtrips of their second record, ATLiens, with the bumping Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik of their first. Nonetheless, Aquemini is an impassioned state-of-hip-hop address. On "Rosa Parks," Dre speaks for every fan who felt burned by all the tossed-off product of late: "Went on out an bought it cause I thought it would be jammin'/but examine all the flawsky-wawsky, awfully sad and costly." Plenty of New York indie rappers have complained about "the state of the art form we used to call hip-hop," but the general reaction is a nostalgic return to the high holy days of '88 or '91-92. With no Southern equivalent to the Almighty Old School (2 Live Crew and Kriss Kross certainly don't count) hanging over their heads, Outkast are much freer to invent their own tradition--tag it the Out School. In the process, they steered hip-hop away from a looming dead end, dropping an album as surprising and sophisticated as The Low End Theory or Follow the Leader.
They produced most of Aquemini themselves, but picked up their flair for milking the powers of sound from Organized Noize (Rico Wade, Ray Murry, and Pat "Sleepy" Brown), the Atlanta production team responsible for their first two records, along with TLC's smash "Waterfalls" and the gospel-fearing Goodie Mob catalogue. Relying on mostly live instrumentation--everything from horns to calimbas to bone rattles--O.N. bring a warm, organic feel to their constructions, every conga beat in perfect place. Dre's infant son (with Badu) Seven cries and struggles to talk on Outkast's drug-slanging exegesis "Slump," like he already fears what the future might bring.
Aquemini's final manifesto is the rock-rap hybrid "Chonkyfire," which bitch-slaps Canibus's tepid "Rip Rock" like he's LL and they're Naomi Campbell. "Do you know what brings rats, mice, snakes up out they hole?" they ask. "Chonkyfire, spliced with rock'n'roll." Does that count as country? Cause, as Outkast once said, "It ain't over 'til that big gal from Decatur sings."