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Outkast’s ‘Aquemini,’ the blueprint of the Southern black renaissance, turns 20

In 1998, Big Boi and Andre 3000 lived up to their promise: ‘The South got something to say’

Before the era of Southern rap dominance. Before Ludacris and T.I. and Lil Jon became household names. Before the Migos and Young Jeezy. Before Atlanta became the hub of hip-hop, there were the Source Awards.

The second annual Source Awards took place on Aug. 3, 1995, and gave hip-hop one of its most iconic nights. The raucous night in New York is most known for the arrival of the “East Coast vs. West Coast beef” between Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’ Bad Boy label and Suge Knight’s Death Row imprint. At one moment, Snoop Dogg is on stage yelling about how the West Coast is (mis)treated in New York, and at another, Knight is poking fun at Combs’ penchant for dancing in his artists’ videos. But there was another, less publicized (at the time) moment that would also reverberate within the culture just as much.

Andre 3000, real name Andre Benjamin, and Big Boi, real name Antwan Patton, two Atlanta rappers known as Outkast, took the stage to accept the award for best new artist, duo. Outkast was a relative unknown at the time on a national stage, five years before 2003’s diamond Speakerboxxx/The Love Below garnered the duo the Grammy for album of the year. In 1995, they were met with a deafening chorus of boos from a Big Apple crowd that wanted its hometown artists to win all of the awards. The two MCs clapped for themselves. Then Andre 3000 took the stage and defiantly yelled six words into the microphone that would change the course of American pop culture forever:

“The South got something to say.”

Outkast album cover for Aquemini.

Courtesy Sony Music

Three years later, Outkast released its third studio album, Aquemini. The last thing listeners hear on the project is a clip from that Source Awards moment and Andre 3000’s unforgettable words. They function, as they did at the Source Awards, as an “I told you so,” mixed with “F you.”

The move was an audio version of Stephen Curry turning around and celebrating before his 3-pointer goes in. Serena Williams combating a racist dress code policy by crushing opponents while wearing a tutu. Muhammad Ali bombastically predicting the round in which he’d knock out his opponents. Outkast called its shot from the stage and then gave us 16 of the best songs rap has ever heard. Aquemini, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is a blessing of an album that stands tall among the best bodies of work music has ever seen. It rests at the pinnacle of creativity, execution and emotion.

Maybe it’s hard to compare music across genres. Maybe rap is too young and unpolished in too many people’s eyes to enter the discussions reserved for the classics from artists such as Stevie Wonder and Prince. Well, forget that. Aquemini is my Songs in the Key of Life. It’s my Purple Rain. It’s my Thriller. It’s about time we talk about hip-hop albums in the pantheon of overall musical excellence, and there’s no better place to start than an album wise beyond the ages of two MCs barely old enough to drink at the time the album was recorded.

What Aquemini did for us in the South, for an entire American region, can’t be understated.

Named after a merge of Big Boi’s Aquarius and Andre 3000’s Gemini signs, Aquemini is a gumbo of soul, funk and trap music before it was called trap music. It’s filled with elite-level lyricism. There’s the jaw-cracking intro “Return Of The ‘G’” in which the tandem rips critics of their unconventional sartorial and musical styles. There are the guitar riffs on the Southern rock “Chonkyfire” and the P-Funk homage “Synthesizer” (featuring George Clinton himself), about the future of plastic surgery. Aquemini is a boundless piece of artistry.

“We never want to be just straight local,” Andre 3000 told Rolling Stone a month after the album’s release. “When we started making music, we wanted to get everybody on the planet to hear it. We reflect emotion, not ‘just what’s happening on your street.’ ”

However, despite the universal appeal of the double-platinum Aquemini, the album manages to keep its toes tickling the rising tide of Georgia’s Chattahoochee River. The lead single, “Rosa Parks,” melds hip-hop with the black church aesthetic of tambourines and choirs. It’s an ode to the Atlanta that raised Outkast. “West Savannah” and “Slump” are grimy, horn- and bass-filled tracks reminiscent of Outkast’s 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Then there’s the actual rapping. Andre 3000 and Big Boi are elbow-deep in their bags for the whole album. Their voices and cadences complement each other like fried catfish and day-old spaghetti. Andre 3000’s flow tumbles across the beats like a rock skipping over a pond. Big Boi’s flow is as smooth and natural as the ripple left behind.

But it’s not just their flows. It’s substance that makes Aquemini sing. One constant theme in the album is the debilitating effects of mass incarceration on the black community. The subject haunts verses throughout the album, much like it has done to the American black population. In 1998, black Americans were knee-deep in a Clintonian three-strikes policy that was putting black men and women in prison for life for their third (even) nonviolent offenses. The policy ravaged black communities. Between 1984 and 1998, the number of people jailed in America grew threefold.

Aquemini is my Songs in the Key of Life. It’s my Purple Rain. It’s my Thriller.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi both allude to three strikes in their album. On “Slump,” Big Boi raps, Continue to sell dope / It’s payin’ the bills so you gon’ do it / But legislation got this new policy / Three strikes and you’re ruined. On “Y’all Scared,” Andre 3000 rhymes, At age 15 started smoking Billy Clint … but what’s sad is that crack / Was introduced to Hispanic communities and blacks / But then it spread to white and got everyone’s undivided attention. And even though “Synthesizer” is largely about the future impact of technology on black folks, Andre 3000 takes a minute to rap, Marijuana illegal but cigarettes cool / I might look kinda funny but ain’t no fool.

I can tell you that “Liberation” feels like an eight-minute holy ghost. I can tell you that there will never be another song like it.

The social commentary goes beyond mass incarceration, of course. “Da Art Of Storytellin’ Part 1” goes from Big Boi’s playful banter about a harmless hookup to Andre 3000’s tragic tale of Sasha Thumper: I asked her what she wanna be / She said ‘alive.’ The title track features Big Boi’s warning about the spoils of rap fame: Let yo paper stack / Instead of going overkill / Pay your f—ing beeper bill. Then Andre 3000 raps, Is every n—a with dreads for the cause / Nah / Is every n—a with gold for the fall? / Nah. So don’t get caught up in appearance — speaking to the criticism laid upon rappers by the respectability politics crowd who wanted them to pull their pants up and look presentable in order to achieve fame.

One especially beautiful aspect of Aquemini is how Outkast truly shows love and care for black folks while urging us to do better, especially in the ’90s era of respectability politics. When they veer into chiding black men who got enough to buy an ounce but not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo, they also bring up the American socioeconomic and criminal justice system thwarts black men even when they try their hardest: Can’t gamble feeding baby on that dope money / Might not always be sufficient but the / United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office / Didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss, Big Boi rhymes on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” one of the pivotal songs on the album.

It’s a testament to the transcendent musicality of Aquemini that the two best songs on the album feature no rapping at all. It’s part jazz, part Motown, and with horns that have been replicated in historically black college band performances across the country. There’s a smoky verse from Sleepy Brown (who has been singing hooks for Outkast since their very first single, “Player’s Ball”), and Big Boi and Andre 3000 trade unrhymed spoken word about the tribulations of being black in America. About how a party can turn into lives lost and love can turn into a lifetime of being stuck in a cycle of caring for a child and avoiding prison. So now you back in the trap / Just that / trapped, Big Boi says, popularizing a word and a mindset that would go on to define an entire subgenre of rap.

I can tell you about the brilliance of the once-in-a-lifetime union of CeeLo Green, Erykah Badu and Outkast singing about their definitions of freedom. I can tell you that “Liberation” feels like an eight-minute holy ghost. I can tell you that there will never be another song like it. “Liberation” played at my sister-in-law’s funeral while the slideshow of her life flashed on the big screen at the front of the church. As we cried, we hummed along. The quartet of geniuses encapsulated a life we didn’t want to say goodbye to — while helping us find a happiness we thought we wouldn’t find on that day. By the time the song was over, we knew Helena had found freedom. What Aquemini did for us in the South, for an entire American region, can’t be understated.

The idea of having pride in the South has for a long time generally been associated with whiteness. “Southern pride” conjures images of Confederate flags and a longing for a time when the states below the Mason-Dixon could own black people. But what about black Southerners? What do we have pride in? Growing up in Mississippi, I didn’t find any pride in my elementary school named after Jefferson Davis. I didn’t find pride in the Dixie flag fluttering above my head every time I drove through downtown Jackson.

But when Andre 3000 grabbed that mic at the Source Awards, he gave black kids a South to be proud of. They made us feel pride in a place that wasn’t made for us to feel happy in. That night in New York shifted the culture. Black kids had been wearing Timbs in hot Mississippi streets because they wanted to be like the Wu-Tang Clan. We thought that being like a New Yorker was the pinnacle of black culture, and that if we could make it out of the South, then we’d make futures for ourselves. But what Andre 3000 proclaimed that night, and what Outkast together declared on Aquemini, was that surviving and thriving in the South was its own victory.

Outkast showed us our reflections as seen in the shiny spokes of Volkswagens and Bonnevilles, Chevrolets and Coupe de Villes bouncing off Old National Highway potholes. They reminded us of the life we could find pride in. The Bayou Classics. The Essence Festivals. Music crafted with the same love and care that the Gullah use to weave a perfectly made handbasket. That perfect slap of a domino smacking the table to drown out the sound of stomachs growling waiting for the ribs to get off the grill.

Outkast called its shot from the stage and then gave us 16 of the best songs rap has ever heard.

While we were fighting for monuments of oppressive Southern pride to get torn down, Outkast was constructing a monument to the beauty in the ugliness around us. Aquemini was a love letter to home — a reminder that we were imperfect kings and queens in flip-flops and socks. Aquemini‘s promise was that, if we turned our love inward toward the place that raised us, then we’d see the beauty around us. Because excellence is only magnified by the obstacles overcome to get there. I say, to have a choice to be who you wants to be / It’s left up-a to me / And my momma n’em told me. That’s why Outkast including that Source clip at the end of the album is so powerful. They stuck the landing.

But the acclaim of the album goes beyond mere critical ratings. It’s no coincidence that the years following Aquemini would bring about an era of Southern dominance over hip-hop culture. And while the cultural shift changed the course of the national music scene, it also transformed Atlanta. The city of Atlanta, complete with a black woman as mayor and possibly a black woman governor on the way, embraces hip-hop as much as any other large city in the country. From T.I. and 2 Chainz with restaurants seemingly on every corner to Big Boi and Gucci Mane performing during halftime at Hawks games and even the Atlanta United soccer team embracing the likes of Waka Flocka to get the crowd hype. This is an Atlanta that understands the beauty of Southern culture. This is a country that sees the city and its blackness as a triumph worth emulating.

And we can thank two young MCs walking on stage amid a chorus of boos and declaring that those of us in the South have lives worth caring about — and a subsequent piece of legendary art that changed the game forever.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.