#500: Outkast, "Aquemini" (1998)

I might look kinda funny but I ain’t no fool

—André 3000, “Synthesizer”


My best friend and I wore our hair so long and greasy in tenth grade that our guidance counselor tried to convince us we were addicted to drugs. Despite the fact that we weren’t, Mr. McDonald repeatedly elbowed us in the ribs and, winking, called us hippies, mimed a pinched roach. It would have all made so much more sense to him if we’d just gone and gotten high.

That same year, another friend of mine spent an entire rehearsal for Arsenic and Old Lace passionately arguing that rap was irredeemably and officially not even music, and I agreed. He cited Nelly, Ja Rule, and Eminem, who I had to hear pumping out of every white jock’s pair of oversized headphones on the track bus: another story of another girl Marshall Mathers had tied up in his trunk and planned to drive somewhere quiet to stab. Fuck all that and all country, I said, the only two things I’d never listen to. “I lost my wife” music and “I killed my wife” music: what kinds of stories were those? How was I to know what I didn’t know?

I didn’t know it, but a few years earlier André 3000 was just beginning to bewig himself with a blond bob, try on marching band uniforms, and generate the inevitable assumptions. He’d gone soft, he’d gone gay, he’d gotten hooked on something, surely. Though I looked less freaky and way less cool, people also probably wondered about me when I donned my uniform and black-feathered helmet to provide the spectacle between halves of the Friday night football games, playing trumpet on the “1812 Overture” and prancing around the turf intended for battle. Was I a stoner burnout, a band-geek fairy, a jock, or a smart kid? Surely I couldn’t be all things; surely not just whatever I thought I was?

I suppose I can forgive myself for believing that all rap was trash, on account of all the rap I’d ever heard was trash. The same eight songs on the rural Iowa urban-music radio station, with their lyrics like slurred and overheard sentence fragments from the bathroom of a club. I had no access to smart and innovative albums like ATLiens or Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Then again, three years later I listened to Eminem and loved even him, or his wordplay and beats at least, if not always the plot points.

But we are all a little less and a little more than our own predictable plots.

*

On the title track of Aquemini, the hook begins like this: Even the sun goes down, heroes eventually die / Horoscopes often lie, and sometimes y.

This has got to be the most compactly efficient and lovely way there ever was of reminding us that we can rely on nothing, be sure of so little: and sometimes y. Don’t forget, Outkast somehow says in only three words, even our own alphabet refuses to tell us—certainly, unequivocally—how to use it to spell.

So after the hard, Southern, badass success of their first two albums, André is seen around town choosing striped knee socks and canary fedoras from thrift-shop bins and is accused of losing his edge. And how does he open the next album? With a fade-in to a sixty-second instrumental track in which he noodles around delicately on a kalimba he stumbled across at a flea market. And then the second track is a response and a mockery all in one, proving he still deserved street cred, while lambasting the clichéd ideas that hip-hop was expected to use as pro forma subject matter.

Return of the gangsta, thanks ta’ / Them niggas that think you soft / And say y’all be gospel rappin’ / But they be steady clappin’ when you talk about / Bitches, and switches, and hoes, and clothes, and weed / Let’s talk about time travelin’, rhyme javelin’ / Somethin’ mind unravelin’, get down

Which is not an empty promise, or a threat, but a preview of all the genre unravelin’, the goddamn gorgeous getting-down they then proceed to do.

*

When I first moved to Seattle after college, I rented one terrible half of a horrible duplex in a no good neighborhood on the very bad outskirts of the international district. It had bars on the windows and no character except for a flat, low roof you could scale the gate to access, fancying yourself a rabble-rouser. I used to lie on my back up there and listen to music, sometimes this album, to drown out the noises of the shouted drug negotiations. Aah-haah, hush that fuss. With the headphones off it was sort of depressing; with the soundtrack, suddenly transcendent.

One night I took this girl up there with an unzipped sleeping bag for a blanket to impress her. I was underneath the flight path of the Sea-Tac airport traffic, so the planes flew over right on line and right on time, the red and green lights of their wingtips like festive shooting stars. You could see just the tops of the few biggest and brightest buildings in downtown.

And if you fell asleep up there, in the light of the morning you could crouch down and leap up, and for one millisecond at your apex you could glimpse the Puget Sound.

She kissed me, but that was all. We climbed down, forgetting the sleeping bag, and later that night it thunderstormed and we kissed some more while binge-watching old Nickelodeon game shows: Double Dare,Figure It OutGutsWhat Would You Do? I held all these truths to be never-changing: I would stay in Seattle for the rest of my days, and Radiohead’s In Rainbows was the greatest album of all time, and I would never go to sleep before 2:30 am a day in my life, and I’d just found the best girl there was.

  Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

But I was just another guy trying too hard and not hard enough and she was just another perfectly nice, pretty, normal girl who didn’t even know who Outkast or Joyce Carol Oates were. And anyway, every day for the rest of her life that girl forgot to call me, and the sleeping bag was soaked through, completely sodden with rain. I kicked it over the edge and listened to it squelch down, then threw it in my neighbor’s dumpster.In Rainbows (#336) didn’t even crack the top 250, or so Rolling Stone says, and I’m not mad about it. One day I got rid of most of my belongings and jammed the rest into my Grand Am and drove to the opposite coast where I found an apartment with no accessible roof or view of anything off in the distance at all, and where the only thing that ever flew over me was a hospital helicopter or two, and I wasn’t even any less happy. Sometimes more. And sometimes y.

*

What do you think you know?

The states, the seasons, the periodic table, the top ten ways to please your man? Do you know which sandwich will be the fifth greatest you’ve ever eaten three years from now? What your life will one day look like on BuzzFeed, what music you like, how many planets there are, the consonants, the vowels of the alphabet? Throw it out the window, leave it out in the rain and kick it all off your roof. Horoscopes often lie. Have your reverend stepfather stop by the studio to do his thing and put that barn-stomping harmonica hoedown smack in the middle of your hip-hop track, and just see what the world makes of that. Inquire of everyone on every street, Do you wanna bump and slump with us?

Is Aquemini the 500th greatest album ever recorded? Sure, and it’s also the 119th and it also didn’t make the cut. And your mother did or didn’t ever love you much depending on when and which way you look at it. One thing I know for sure is that it’s the only double-platinum album ever to feature a verse rapped over a pay phone from inside a jail, for whatever that’s worth and for whatever that might mean to someone.

Aquemini is also worth replaying and praising and parsing and pleading with others to pay attention to. And I believe that to the extent it is possible to really unequivocally believe something permanently I will continue to believe this.

In fifty years I believe I will be elderly, if still around, and modern music will mostly sound like two mournful whatever’s-replaced-iPads in heat calling out to each other across a great distance, and the oldies station will come on and I’ll sit on a roof somewhere and hold my old knees to my chest and listen to André and Antwan and I’ll watch the sunset, which I believe will still be happening daily. And the sun will be such a show-off. Consistently inconsistent—even that bright-blond melon will go down and will go down different than other days, will get down in style.

—Eric Thompson