**** OUTKAST "Aquemini" LaFace/Arista
Long before the current wave of Southern rappers rose to prominence, OutKast emerged with 1994's "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik." Unlike other non-New York and non-L.A. rap groups, OutKast's Dre and Big Boi presented themselves as simply themselves, highlighting their Atlanta roots and incorporating rich, live production from Organized Noize. Their messages of self-empowerment were embraced by the hip-hop community, as the album sold nearly 1 million copies.
One of OutKast's many strengths is its willingness to evolve. Its second album, 1996's "ATLiens," included a number of cosmic themes and featured several stellar, self-produced tracks. Another album free of sensationalized story lines, it sold more than 1.2 million.
"Aquemini," OutKast's third brilliant slice of hip-hop, continues its stellar recording history. Never ones to get bogged down with a single delivery style, Dre and Big Boi masterfully practice relaxed, hyper, distorted, speedy and conversational presentations. Tackling topics such as emancipation, drug addiction and problematic relationships, they explore the bleakest aspects of humanity while encouraging their listeners to examine themselves.
Musically, the collection supplies some of the lushest tracks ever included on a hip-hop record. Producers Organized Noize, David "Mr. DJ" Sheats and OutKast effortlessly blend piano, horns, congas, synthesizers, keyboards and a variety of guitars into a cohesive mix of mood-enhancing soundscapes. OutKast is even bold enough to include a harmonica solo on the bouncy "Rosa Parks." As they've done before, OutKast creates intelligent hip-hop that will stimulate the mind, touch the soul and pack the dance floor.