Run It Back is a retrospective review of classic or game-changing hip-hop releases whose style and sound still resonate with listeners in the modern, streaming-driven era. Hip-hop has always been a forward-facing, youth-oriented culture, but it’s also deeply informed by the past. This is our way of bridging the gap, paying homage to rap’s roots while exploring how they still hold relevance today.
I’m not quite sure how I went 20 years without noticing that the two most influential albums of my life — and in hip-hop — were released on the same day, but I suppose late is better than never. Outkast’s Aquemini and Black Star’s Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are… were two of the very, very few constants in my life over that span, persisting with me through jobs earned and lost, relationships begun and ended, and multiple attempts at furthering my education that never quite panned out. It’s incredible that both albums were released on the same day, because they’re reflections of each other as well. The yin-yang chemistry on both albums also extends to the albums themselves; one was all slowed-down Southern funk, the other was bustling New-York jazz, but both were totally hip-hop to their cores, showing that hip-hop could be either or both or even more. One would only be half as effective without the other, but together, they upended every expectation of the then-exploding genre.
The thing is, while I was being shaped by these two albums, I would have little way to recognize how much impact they were having on the rest of the hip-hop world. The aspects that had blown my mind — lyrical and conceptual complexity, carefully cultivated Pan-African and Afrofuturistic aesthetics, the open rejection of the trappings of successful mainstream radio rap — were capturing the hearts and minds of disaffected rap fans in dorm rooms and at lunch tables and in underground bars and clubs all over America and the world. They were smart, original takes on hip-hop that highlighted a different path to critical acclaim and commercial prosperity in hip-hop separate from the flashy pop rap of curators like Puff Daddy or the gruff grittiness of DMX and Ja Rule. They sounded like the start of a revolution and with all due respect to the venerable poet Gil Scott Heron (who was certainly a massive influence on both), it was a revolution that wouldn’t even have worked if it weren’t televised. Together, they led a cultural renaissance of late-90s alternative rap whose effects still reverberate to this day, not only reshaping the sounds of hip-hop, but changing fundamental concepts of what hip-hop should and could sound like.
It’s actually incredible how similar they are, on both a surface level and a deeper one, considering the separation between the two musically both musically and geographically, but in hindsight, they are two sides of one coin. Both rapper duos first formed through friendships that extended from their members’ shared interests and penchant for standing out over fitting in. Both groups espoused jazzy, throwback sonics throughout their respective discographies, yet also embraced experimentation, going against the grain of their eras and regions. Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi eschewed oversized, throwback Atlanta Hawks jerseys (at least sometimes) for turbans, dashikis, and linen suits, while Mos Def and Talib Kweli tended to be more fond of military-inspired gear than their shiny-suited New York counterparts, carrying on the quirky sensibilities of Pro-Black groups like A Tribe Called Quest (who incidentally released their then-final album, The Love Movement, on the same day as Black Star’s quintessential debut).
Both groups even shared a similar yin-yang chemistry of one street-rooted straight talker and one mysterious iconoclast, with the formers winding up several times more prolific than their partners (to date, Big Boi and Kweli have eleven solo albums between them, while Yasiin Bey has four and Andre has zero — not counting The Love Below, which was released as an Outkast double album). Both duos were part of larger groups and regional movements within hip-hop that they ultimately came to represent the public faces of; Outkast, with the Dungeon Family which included Goodie Mob and Organized Konfusion, Black Star with Rawkus Records and fellow standouts Pharoahe Monch, Reflection Eternal (of which Kweli was also a member), and Big L.
They are both deeply introspective, addressing self-determination and liberation from mental oppression, incorporating Afrofuturistic concepts and spacey sounds on “Astrology (8th Light)” and “Synthesizer.” Both albums examine the conditions of poverty, violence, and desperation in the inner city with tracks like “Da Art Of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” and “Respiration.” Both even contain gargantuan posse cuts with members of their respective crews and standout verses from female counterparts (Masada on “Mamacita” on Aquemini and Jane Doe on “Twice Inna Lifetime” on Black Star).
However, they are distinguished by key differences as well. While Aquemini was steeped in sultry, syrupy, slow-cooked, Southern soul, with molasses-thick grooves and an emphasis in many songs on melody as much as their rhymes (“SpottieOttieDopalicious,” “Liberation”), Black Star was all brash, New York bravado, stuttering jazz backlines, and percussive, intricately interlinked rhyme patterns that stressed their lyrical superiority over challengers (“Hater Players”) and referential storytelling (“Children’s Story,” Mos’ solo cover of the Slick Rick original). Despite those differences, both albums examined pro-Black and Pan African themes, with Andre questioning “Is every n—a with dreads for the cause?” on Aquemini‘s title track and Black Star praising Black women on “Brown Skin Lady.”