Along with a cluster of other seminal albums that debuted in 1998, Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast’s masterful third album Aquemini turns 20 this year. I was in Memphis then, a high school student living at my mother’s house. To me, Atlanta was like a sophisticated older cousin — still country, but sexier, with more polish and definitely more lights. Many of my friends’ dreams were there, and when I listen to Aquemini now, it still sounds like dreams, a frenetic, far-out ambition, and a real love of home and roots. At The Undefeated, Atlanta-based writer Dennis Norris considers how the album defined the contemporary South and anticipated the pop music landscape of today.
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.
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.
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 gamesand 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.