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Far Out but in Touch

[whitespace] Outkast reaches even higher on 'Aquemini'

By Nicky Baxter

The hip-hop renegades of OutKast have almost single-handedly snapped the musical and philosophical choke hold of the East and West Coasts. Don't pigeonhole Big Boi (Antwan Patton) and his rhyme partner, Dre (Andre Benjamin), as gat-totin,' wannabe wise guys or dismiss them as doughy alternativists. OutKast is neither here nor there.

True, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzi, Outkast's platinum-selling 1994 debut album, was studded with street-level tales of pimps and fur-wrapped women of questionable pedigree, but when Atliens dropped two years later, hip-hopdom had to bow down to a new sound that mixed Southern heritage with beats and banter that were at times, almost jazzy. It was as if the boyz had hunkered down with Sun Ra for a chat and walked away with stars in their eyes.

Aquemini (BMG), OutKast's current release, takes listeners higher, even as its roots are firmly planted in Georgian soil. Like the preceding albums, Aquemini is produced by the Organized Crime crew, whose sonic fingerprints are all over this joint.

From front to back, Aquemini must considered one of the year's most accomplished albums. On the surface, jams like "Return of the 'G' " appear to be little more than playa-hatin' rants. But check Dre's clever lyrics: "Them niggas that thank you soft and sappy y'all be/Gospel rappin' but, they be steady callin' when you/Talk about bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed/Let's talk about time travelin' rhyme javelin."

Threading its way through the verbal maelstrom is a pastiche of delicately descending harp lines, foreboding synth notes, bursts of gun play, girlish giggling and smoothed-out background vocals.

"West Savannah" confirms Big Boi and Dre's unerring way with words. The number's unhurried pace and minimalist pulse are a far cry from the frantic action of much Yankee rap. Laced with spidery jazz guitar licks and a looped trumpet blurt, the track boasts Big Boi's drawling, self-assured delivery. And, as elsewhere, the backing harmonies will reel you in if the versifying doesn't.

"Chonkyfire" is rock-funk number built on skronky wah-wah-guitar, spaced-out synth work and radio signals seemingly beamed down from a distant planet. Both wordsmiths sound desperate--as if the fate of the world depends on their communiqué: "Do you know what brings rats, mice, snakes up out of they hole/Chonkyfire, spliced with rock & roll/You are now entering the fifth dimension of ascension/Our only intention is to take you high, high." The tune doesn't end so much as run out of gas, as if on its last legs.

The Civil Rights movement was launched in the South, and Rosa Parks is acknowledged as a quietly galvanizing presence. To their credit, Big Boi and Dre give Parks her props. But this is no teary-eyed eulogy. Their silver-tongued spiel eschews sentimentality for a story told simply. Indeed, musically, "Rosa Parks" is a cheerful, harmonica- and acoustic guitar-propelled number adorned with an imminently hummable chorus.

Clearly, OutKast needs no outside assistance to rock our world. Nevertheless hip-hop etiquette seems to require at least a few hip-hop heads show up for some verbal sparing. On Aquemini, the pair teams up with the likes of Wu Tang's Raekwon, Cee-Lo and the Grand Wazoo of Funk, George Clinton. With Aquemini, OutKast again demonstrates that it is possible to be far-out yet stay in touch.

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Web extra to the December 31, 1998-January 6, 1999 issue of Metro.

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