By coincidence, I listened to Aquemini during the same period that I was rereading Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet for the first time since high school. This is a strange combination, but I was struck by how they resonated with each other. I’m reading a version of R + J annotated by Burton Raffel, a linguist and translator whose notes emphasize Shakespeare’s musicality and wordplay. Take for example these lines from Act 1, Scene 1, in which Romeo’s friend Benvolio accuses Romeo of being in love, and Romeo confesses that it’s true:

Benvolio: I aimed so near when I supposed you loved.
Romeo: A right good markman, and she’s fair I love.
Benvolio: A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit.

As Raffel glosses this passage, the first “fair” means “beautiful.” The second “fair”, as in “right fair”, means “proper/upright fine/pleasing”, and the third “fair” is a term of respect and courtesy. Thus, as Raffel points out, Shakespeare uses the word “fair” three ways in the space of eight words. Now check out André 3000’s opening words in OutKast’s “Return of the ‘G'”:

Like uh, niggas always be hollering “peace”
You know what I’m saying, “peace my brother”
Peace this, peace that, you know what I’m saying but
Every time I uh try to get a peace of mind
Niggas try to get a piece of mine
So I gotta grab my piece

With the first use of “peace”, in the first three lines, André means “lack of violence/fighting”, but goes on to point out that the word itself has become an empty marker for many of the same people in his community who utter it constantly. In line 4 he attaches “peace” to the regular colloquialism “peace of mind”, meaning inner contentedness or serenity, but then immediately observes how that tranquility is shattered by the acquisitiveness of those same people declaring “peace” — they grasp for a portion of what belongs to André, turning “peace of mind” into “piece of mine.” And in the final line André finds yet another meaning of “piece” — “I gotta grab my piece” uses “piece” as slang for a firearm. Take that, Shakespeare.

Album cover of Aquemini

Another commonality between OutKast and Shakespeare, at least for me, is that in both cases, I’d be pretty lost without a good set of annotations. Despite the fact that they’re my contemporaries, it turns out that OutKast’s version of inner city Atlanta is really no less a foreign culture to me than Shakespeare’s version of Renaissance Verona. For the play, Raffel provides the annotations, but for the album I turned to the absolutely invaluable Genius.

It’s because of that site that I was able to understand what Big Boi and André mean when they talk about “the trap”. Turns out that’s the place where drug deals happen. (I actually gleaned this from context when I watched Moonlight, but the Genius annotations helped confirm and clarify it.) That understanding illuminated lines on this album where OutKast calls out the double meaning explicitly, such as Big Boi in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, who paints the picture of a new father who wants a reliable income for his baby but fails a drug test:

The United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office
Didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss
So now you back in the trap just that, trapped
Go on and marinate on that for a minute

Similarly, André sketches a character who smoked away his teenage years:

Now he’s twenty-one and wants to know where the time went
Hey hey hey what’s the haps? Well see your time elapsed
Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word trap?

Without Genius, I’d have a much more superficial understanding of these lyrics, not to mention the zillion unfamiliar references peppered throughout every song.

In the plays, Shakespeare wrote to be performed, not read, and the same is true of OutKast. Their lyrics are worth attention in written form, but they only truly come alive when performed with OutKast’s music. Even in cases where the lyrics don’t amount to much (in fact often especially in those cases), the music can carry a song.

OutKast’s biggest hit from this album, “Rosa Parks”, is the perfect example. Lyrically it’s pretty much your standard “We’re awesome, let’s party” hip-hop song, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the real Rosa Parks’ lawyers, who sued the group for misappropriating her name. Their (hilarious) summary of the chorus: “[b]e quiet and stop the commotion. OutKast is coming back out [with new music] so all other MCs [mic checkers, rappers, Master of Ceremonies] step aside. Do you want to ride and hang out with us? OutKast is the type of group to make the clubs get hyped-up/excited.” What they didn’t capture was the fabulous beat, and the funky vocal and guitar part. That’s what made the song such a hit, far more so than the words or any association with Parks herself.

Unlike, say, Public Enemy, OutKast tends to privilege live instruments over samples in this album, and the results unsurprisingly feel more organic and natural than most of the super synth-heavy hip-hop on the charts. In fact, the song “Synthesizer” addresses this directly — not unkindly (“If you wanna synthesize, I empathize”), but definitely linking high-tech music to other technological artificiality: cosmetic surgery, cybersex, and virtual reality (“virtual bullshit!”).

Still, the synthesizer and distortion in “Chonkyfire” sounds amazing — it’s probably my favorite song musically on the album. Awesome bottom end, fantastic guitar and piano overlaid on a thick, thick synthesized string part. A close second would be the fascinating rhythm of the horn part in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, a gorgeous and complex jazz figure that’s as compelling as the storytelling lyrics, which contrast a love story against a gritty background.

And I guess that brings us back to Romeo and Juliet. There’s theater baked into some of the hip-hop templates, like the skits between songs and the guest artists coming on like cameo characters. OutKast embraces those forms on Aquemini, and adds touches of their own, such as the track “Nathaniel”, phoned in from prison like a little soliloquy.

In fact, for as much as I enjoy language, theater, and a good beat, you’d think I’d listen to a lot more hip-hop. I think part of what deflects me is the fact that so much of it seems so repetitive – gangstas, drugs, braggadocio, and exploitative sex, seemingly on an endless loop. I get that it often comes from people’s real lives, out of an American reality from which I’m shielded by white privilege, but it just seems so narrow, and often wrongly glamorized. And OutKast is by no means exempt from this, especially Big Boi, who tends to be more street-focused than André. But what I appreciate is that they are constantly complicating the picture. Their “Return of the ‘G'” [gangsta] is a reluctant return, each of them pulled back into gangster stories and life when he’d rather “kick back with my gators off / And watch my lil’ girl blow bubbles.” In that song, they sound just as trapped as the characters they talk about. But they were getting ready to blow that trap wide open.