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Two for the Future

To hip-hop's OutKast and Black Eyed Peas, the glass is half full.

"Let's face it--negativity sells records," says Taboo, one of the three emcees behind Black Eyed Peas. "It's wack, but it does. Negativity sells movies; violence sells a lot of things. Sex and violence are two of the biggest things that turn humans on."
That may be true, but the men of Black Eyed Peas and OutKast, two hip-hop acts now touring together, have little interest in mindlessly employing these surefire sales devices. Not that the outfits produce the kind of innocuous kiddie rap guaranteed airplay on creatively timid R&B stations--both can get hard when the situation demands it. But in general, they choose to avoid the offhand misogyny, clamorous stupidity and sonic redundancy that are all too prevalent in commercial hip-hop. Instead, they favor lyrics that dig deeper than usual and music that's more than a reclamation project for smashes from the past.

Behind the Front, the Peas' debut for Interscope Records, isn't wholly original (it's all-too-obviously indebted to A Tribe Called Quest and other participants in the Native Tongues movement), but it treats listeners with intelligence via music that generally steers clear of stereotypes. Even better is Aquemini, OutKast's third CD for the LaFace imprint, wherein rappers Dre and Big Boi's contrasting techniques--the former is introspective, the latter is party-ready--come together in a manner that kicks like a hoodlum, but without a moronic aftertaste. Moreover, OutKast's palette incorporates a bracingly wide variety of musical colors.

"It's hip-hop from the start," Dre says, "but we're also into funk, blues, jazz and even some country and bluegrass. I couldn't tell you a single name of somebody who plays bluegrass, but when I hear it, I like it."

Big Boi (ne Antoine Patton) and Dre (Andre Benjamin) were born in 1975 within three months of each other: Aquemini is a conflation of Aquarius and Gemini, their respective zodiac signs. They met while attending Tri-Cities High School in suburban Atlanta and quickly discovered common ground. "We came from basically the same background," Dre says. "We grew up the same way, and were into a lot of the same things."

These activities weren't always the kind approved by the Concerned Mothers of America; Dre and Big Boi spent much of their free time on Atlanta avenues, and they weren't there to sweep the curbs. But rap saved them from a less productive fate. The two OutKasters signed with Atlanta-based LaFace shortly before their Tri-Cities High graduation, and when their first album, 1994's Southernplayalisticaddillacmuzik, reached stores, they were approximately a year shy of their twentieth birthdays. In the jacket photos, Dre looks too young to get a job delivering newspapers.

As the disc's title implies, several of the tunes on it exalt the seamy side of life: "Player's Ball," the platter's biggest single, references "gangsta rides" (preferably 1977 Cadillac Sevilles), "bitches watchin' for snitches," "gin and juice" and so on. But there are also numerous signs of nascent lyrical consciousness (e.g., "You need to git up, git out and git somethin'/Don't spend all your time tryin' to get high," from "Git Up, Git Out") and a fondness for genre-mixing. "Peaches" kicks things off with a dose of jazz, "Myintrotoletuknow" tosses out hip-hop flavored with bayou boogie, the title cut and "Funky Ride" call to mind classic soul, and so on.

ATLiens, from 1996, continued OutKast's growth process: The songs on it are even more musically eclectic than the ones on its predecessor, and the lines often aim for greater complexity. "Mainstream," for instance, follows up routine bits of ghetto melodrama ("Go get my gun/Load up for fun") with some bitter truths ("It ain't just the police/We kill each other/Just lost another brother/Fast living will get you took/ Thinking it can't happen to you/And then it do"). In addition, the emcees go further in establishing separate identities. On the hip-hop hit "Elevators," Big Boi boasts about OutKast's success in boisterous terms ("Passes gettin' thrown like Hail Marys/And they lookin' like Halle Berry") while Dre patiently explains to an old schoolmate that popularity isn't something to be taken for granted ("I got more fans than the average man/But not enough loot to last me to the end of the week...If you don't move your foot/Then I don't eat").

The differences between the approaches of Big Boi and Dre have not been lost on LaFace publicists, who refer to the pair collectively as "the playa and the poet." Dre, however, is uncomfortable with the label. "I hate that saying, really," he admits. "I do have a poetical side at times, so I guess that's cool, but I'm not like an everyday poet. I guess you'd say I'm an unstable type of guy--unstable meaning that I'm always changing to keep myself going, always searching for something new. And Big Boi, he's more straightforward. He knows exactly what he wants to do in life. He knows. What he brings to OutKast is more like a street type of flavor, and what I bring is something different from what you hear all the time."

These observations are confirmed by Aquemini, OutKast's strongest effort to date. Superficial listeners may think "Return of the 'G'" is a tribute to musical superflys who "talk about bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed," but it actually turns the hustler mythology inside out. As Dre raps it, "Return of the gangsta, thanks ta/Them niggas that got them kids, who got enough to buy an ounce/But not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo/Or to the park, so they grow up in the dark, never/ Seein' light, so they end up bein' like your sorry ass/ Robbin' niggas in broad-ass daylight/Get down!" That's followed by "Rosa Parks," which subtly evokes the nation's most famous bus rider in a ditty about refusing to rest on one's laurels; "Da Art of Storytellin'," a two-parter about women done wrong by the men in their lives; and a batch of other songs that don't let enlightenment get in the way of entertainment. The music is tough enough to attract the likes of Raekwon, the Wu-Tang Clansman who guests on "Skew It on the Bar-B," but it also makes room for a George Clinton cameo on the P-Funk nod "Synthesizer." As for Erykah Badu, who is Dre's significant other and the mother of his numerically monikered son, Seven, she sounds heavenly on "Liberation," a statement of purpose that's as tasty as it is satisfying.

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