OUTKAST Aquemini (LaFace)

OutKast's third album, released in 1998, is a sprawling mix of Southern hip-hop, skits and soulful psychedelia. Some tracks ("Return Of The "G"", "Mamacita") have the kind of lopsided beats associated with the Wu-Tang Clan, whose Raekwon guests on the album, yet in the context of what surrounds them they sound rather regressive. There's Prince-esque electric guitar on the title track and "Chonkyfire", and George Clinton seems a natural collaborator on the finger-wagging warnings against modern technology, plastic surgery and genetic engineering that constitute "Synthesiser".  "West Savannah", held over from their debut, appropriates "Be Thankful For What You've Got" for a biographical tale of guns, drugs and money that emphasises the album's split lyrical personality: every moment of enlightenment, empowerment and self-improvement seems to be undercut by another of gangsta braggadocio. It's a measure of the album's lyrical density and complexity that it seems as though a Cliff's Notes would be genuinely helpful in unravelling it.

There are a few moments that break through to genuine greatness, though, demonstrating the duo's awesome potential. "Da Art Of Storytellin' (Pt. 1)" masters the kind of supercharged narrative flow A Tribe Called Quest often hinted at. "SpottieOttieDopalicious" is a perfect balance of the cerebral and the commercial, an ambitious stew of falsetto, Curtis Mayfield-style vocals, long, complex horn riffs and compelling raps that navigate through the grimy realities of Atlanta nightlife and the responsibilities of parenthood, the kind of social-realist soul that Marvin and Curtis used to make. Even better is "Liberation", its mix of pop-soul and creeping unease enhanced by the presence of Cee-Lo (of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley) and Erykah Badu. Gospel vocals and a "Moonlight Sonata"-style piano figure drift through the mix, and both the lyrical theme and running water sound effects suggest Prince's epic "Positivity".  Thoughtfully pressed as a triple LP, "Aquemini" is also probably the best-sounding hip-hop vinyl I've encountered recently.