Musa Okwonga on Aquemini by Outkast: “The kind of thing you could play to aliens”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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As a musician myself, my most important album keeps changing – once it was The Score by The Fugees, at another time Crooks & Lovers by Mount Kimbie. But Aquemini came into my life just before I started uni and hasn’t left since. With the exception of the Wu-Tang Clan, I had never seen black men so creative, so fearless. This album has everything. Breadth, depth, length, supreme storytelling, wild, almost reckless divergence of moods; at turns triumphant and melancholic, but always mesmerising. It’s an otherworldly piece of music, the kind of thing you could play to aliens as proof of how sublime humans can be. I love Aquemini as much as I love the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut – every time I return to both works, I find some new way of looking at the human condition.

I also love Aquemini because it shows, in the most thrilling fashion, what happens when two songwriters utterly trust each other. This is the album where Big Boi and André 3000 worked perfectly in tandem, and became far greater as a result. I listen to “Chonkyfire” and think that Outkast, if they wished, could have made the greatest rap-rock album of all time. “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” is still a gold standard for any poet who seeks to put their words to music. The title track is as wistful yet stirring as anything that hip hop has produced, and “Rosa Parks” will fill dance floors for years to come.

I am obsessed with pieces of art that are wholly, superbly realised, because they are immediately timeless. They leave me with a sense of sadness whenever I draw to their close, the same way I feel when finishing a home-made meal with loved ones. Aquemini is a work that surges and lulls, that sprawls but never meanders; it’s vast, contemplative, universal. Most of all, it’s brave. They could have stuck to the formula, but they embraced autotune, funk, folk and more. André sang, Big Boi wrote hooks galore, they got George Clinton in the studio and went to work.

Whenever unsure about the musical path I should take, I ask myself: “What would Outkast do?” And the answer is always the same – risk everything, including ridicule and failure. Venture beyond the boundaries of all you’ve produced to this point. Try to make the kind of music that, decades from now, someone will idly slip on shuffle as their spacecraft moves from one galaxy to another; and, upon hearing it, they’ll think: “You know what, that’s not half bad.”

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special