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.”
But where both of these groundbreaking, standout, strikingly linked albums really intersect is in the ripples their unique, ephemeral-yet-timeless sounds have created in hip-hop culture and music, which have become the waves many of today’s biggest artists ride to success. Outkast was the first major hip-hop group from Atlanta to blow up on a national level, three years after declaring “da souf got sum to say” at the 1995 Source Awards. After Aquemini, the eye-catching, genre-bending duo could never again be overlooked, as an Andre 3000 verse is still a coveted and widely touted addition to any rapper’s album, even though (or possibly because) he basically stopped rapping with 2003’s Grammy Award-winning Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, never releasing a full album of solo material since then.
Their influence can be heard in recent records from the likes of Big KRIT, B.O.B, David Banner, Bubba Sparxxx, Killer Mike, Trae The Truth, Rittz, Freddie Gibbs, J. Cole (who was excoriated online for daring to use the same sample from “Da Art Of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” for his “Forbidden Fruit” on his 2013 sophomore album Born Sinner at a time when he hadn’t yet “earned” the same level of respect as the ATL legends), and J. Cole’s Dreamville signees, EarthGang, who have been compared to Outkast by more than one publication. They are even the subject of academic courses of study. And of course, without Outkast and the Dungeon Family, there’d be no Future, who was a junior member of the crew who has gone on to have a tremendous impact on Atlanta rap himself.
J. Cole also counts Black Star among his influences, appearing with the duo on Reflection Eternal’s 2010 album Revolutions Per Minute. In fact, it was Black Star who “proved” the revived commercial viability of so-called “conscious rap,” leading to a resurgence of the style throughout the 2000s which can be heard throughout the catalogs of modern rappers like Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 jazz-rap masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly was nothing if not a reflection of the sounds and styles on display in Black Star’s debut (and in their respective follow-ups, which expanded on the jazzy, Pan-African themes of Black Star). J. Cole himself is one of the greatest recipients of this cultural paradigm shift, as his last three albums have all gone platinum despite receiving little push from a major label, even as Cole himself becomes more iconoclastic and musically unconventional.
Logic, Joey Badass, Bishop Nehru, Blu, Flatbush Zombies, Lupe Fiasco, Little Brother, Open Mike Eagle, Jay Electronica, Vic Mensa, and even Jay-Z (who released his own eye-opening breakthrough album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, the same day as Black Star in 1998) count Black Star among their inspirations for complicated rhyme schemes, socially aware, introspective, observational, and reflective lyrics, and unflinchingly rebellious protest against the powers that be. Without Black Star, there’s no doubt that albums like J. Cole’s KOD would be going overlooked today; because of them, Cole can proudly boast that he is a platinum-selling rapper without Hot 100 hits or songs that play into rap’s modern status quo.
As for how these albums affected me, there’s a reason I’m drawn to rappers who are willing to go against the grain, who twist complicated rhyme schemes into insightful diatribes discussing heavy topics like colonialism and radical self-love. Why I don’t mind being slightly out of step with the sounds and styles that define hip-hop at any given point in its evolution. They are why I’m unapologetically myself, because Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, and Big Boi were so unafraid to do and be all of these things. They didn’t compromise themselves or their art to achieve their critical and commercial success; in fact, they achieved both because they refused to do so. They made music to move the souls of Black folk as well as their bodies, showing the world an Afrocentric future that was bright beyond the glitz and glamor of mainstream party rap, shining with the light of a distant black star.