There was a time in hip-hop when style was everything. You could be saying anything or nothing, but if either was performed with enough charisma, it could get you over (see Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”). Which isn’t to say that substance wasn’t appreciated — Public Enemy’s success showed us this. It’s just that your style was yourself representing in the public space. Letting the world know who you be.

After (and before) hip-hop began to fatten suit pockets, money began to fart on the scene — marking its territory. Com merce punked art. Originality became risky, because different became difficult to market. Biting styles went from forbidden to radio heavy rotation.

There’s a fine line between love and hate you see

Came way too late but baby I’m on it

Can’t worry ’bout what a nigga thank

Now see that’s liberation

And baby I want it.

—”Liberation” from Aquemini

When OutKast dropped Southernplay- alisticadillacmuzik in the summer of 1994, a lotta people took their first serious look at Southern-fried hip-hop. Just as Ice Cube had narrated a Westside story and KRS-One told an Eastside version, OutKast (Dre and Antoine “Big Boi” Patton) slanged parables ’bout dat Durty South. It was pimped-out Atlanta trunk music laced in black consciousness. Huh? That’s what heads were saying once they tunneled through the funk to catch the lyrics. These boys from the South had something to say. It was young black soul music with all the soulful contradictions of young black life.

After their platinum debut, the duo showed they could go to their left. The sophomore joint, ATLiens, was some extraterrestrial funk that had a few Cadillac drivers grumbling, but not enough to prevent platinum-point-five. With their new album, Aquemini, OutKast have gone between their legs and behind their backs, and returned home court to run up a funk score. Soundscan: Aquemini = 227,201 copies first week.

Aquemini is a story of funking on a higher ground. The album’s subtle spirituality is a carryover from the first two releases. Calling from his home in Atlanta, Dre says, “Everybody should be on their own thang. We ain’t trying to tell nobody how to believe in God. We just talking about connection. Do what you do. Follow the way you know. We just know that that spirit is there. It comes on out through our music.”

Big Boi, also calling from Atlanta, adds, “Our sound comes from prayer. If you got kids, it makes you look at the world in a different kind of way. Kids will make you try to make your mark on the world. They make you wanna be your own man. A lotta people out there dropping negative tracks because they following someone else. They might not even believe what they rapping.”

Like Big Boi, Dre credits much of his personal and artistic growth

to the birth of his child. Dre and singer Erykah Badu have a 1-year-old son named Seven Sirius.

“After Seven came,” Dre said, “something just zapped me. It just came out of nowhere. I started getting all these ideas, all this inspiration on how the music should sound, how the music should feel. It was like somebody put a battery in me.”

Seven makes his recording debut with some syncopated baby squeals layered within the music. Indeed, children are a theme running throughout Aquemini:

It’s the Return of the Gangsta thanks ta

Them niggas that’s on that blow that run up in yo

Crib which contains your lady and 8-month-old

Child to raise . . . Get down!

It’s the Return of the Gangsta thanks ta

Them niggas who got them kids

Who got enough to buy an ounce

But not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo

To the park so they grow up in the dark never

Seein’ light so they end up like yo sorry ass

Robbin’ niggas in the broad-ass daylight

Get down!

—”Return of the ‘G’”

When you make music people can feel, they’re going to start listening to what you say. The 23-year-old members of OutKast find themselves in the position of nascent hip-hop spokesmen.

Reflecting on the stock that fans place in his words, Big Boi says, “It’s an honor that some people look to us as spokespersons, young black men with something to say. It’s an honor to be on that mike and have the opportunity to educate brothers.

“After a show, this cat who had just graduated college told me that for a while he wasn’t going to class, he just wasn’t feeling motivated. He told me he listened to ‘Git Up, Git Out’ [on the first album] every morning, and that would get him out of the crib so he could go to class. He said it help ed him graduate from college. That makes me feel good, that we’re touching people by just being ourselves and telling our own story.”

LA Weekly