outkast - speakerboxxx/the love below (album cover)OutKast has an impressive — and often overlooked — discography, and five years before the rap duo took their final album, 2003‘s 135-minute double-solo LP Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, eleven times multi-platinum, they delivered their finest record in Aquemini. It’s a sprawling, spacious set of songs, with only one weak track: the curiously (and thoroughly) mediocre “Mamacita.” (Frankly, I don’t understand what it’s doing here when the rest of the tracks are so uniformly strong.) Some overlong skits are tacked awkwardly onto the end of a several tracks that at first threaten to make this 74-minute behemoth a tad unwieldy at first, but after repeated listens even the skits fit rather naturally into the album’s overall tapestry.

outkast - stankonia (album cover)OutKast’s career gained a lot more traction with their 2000 effort Stankonia, which is frequently cited as their best work. It’s absolutely an excellent album, and it features some great singles in “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.,” but I like Aquemini more, and I don’t feel like it has really gotten the attention it deserves when it comes to “best of” lists. It missed the original 2003 cut of Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest albums list, but it was added to the book version a couple of years later …at number 500. When Rolling Stone updated their list a few months ago, I expected Aquemini to rise up the list somewhat, but it remained at number 500, to my great dismay. Aquemini is one of the best albums in the field of alternative rap, a vital subgenre that largely avoids the graphic content — in terms of both sex and violence — of the more prominent gangsta rap and hardcore rap.

slick rick - the great adventures of slick rick (album cover)Not to mention OutKast bring a distinctly Southern flavor to the table, an unusual sound for the (at the time) more NYC- and LA-based hip-hop culture. In fact, the LA-based gangsta rap and NYC-based mafioso rap had just reached gruesome ends, with 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. murdered in the couple of years leading up to Aquemini‘s release. I actually discovered Aquemini right before I finalized my 100 favorite albums list, but I just hadn’t had enough time with it in order to feel comfortable about including it at the time. Well, since finalizing my list last November, I have probably listened to Aquemini more than any other album and I now consider it one of my all-time favorites, easily in the top 100 and probably in the top 50. I had initially found “Mamacita” absolutely unlistenable, and that alone kept it off the list. (If you were playing close attention when I was doing the list, I mentioned this in the honorable mention section of Slick Rick‘s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.)

outkast - rosa parks (single cover)I’ve since gotten used to the song (I used to have to skip it each time through), but I still consider it to be nothing special amidst some really great material. The only hit OutKast muscled out of this album is the excellent “Rosa Parks,” which peaked at number 55, but there’s a gold mine of greatness here, to be sure. The production, for instance, is so outstanding that it takes a lot of listens to even realize that a lot of the touches are even there, such as the orchestra that backs “Return of the G.” The truly showstopping tune is the meditative and altogether magnificent “Liberation,” a near-nine-minute epic that is absolutely staggering in its sweep and beauty. Lyrically, Aquemini is full of memorable lines that appropriately characterize OutKast’s goofy sense of humor. My favorite: “As the plot thickens, it gives me the dickens reminiscent of Charles” from “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.”