20 Years Later, OutKast’s ATLiens Is A Masterpiece Of Space & Time

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True to its extraterrestrial theme, OutKast’s 1996 sophomore album ATLiens was of another world. Like the “Paid In Full” vocal sample proclaimed, André 3000 and Big Boi added “new color, new dimension, and new value” to the mid-’90s Hip-Hop ethos. Arguably, this came at a time when Hip-Hop’s soul needed it the most. Twenty years later, OutKast has proven that they were on the frontier.

To understand ATLiens’ landing, one must remember the album arrivals through August 27, 1996. Tupac Shakur had left prison with a two-piece West Coast Rap classic in All Eyez On Me. Vitriolic, wrathful, and fast-living, those two discs were not unlike the Thug Passion ‘Pac swilled while making it. Like the Hennessy and Alizé cocktail, All Eyez packed a ferocious bite underneath its sweetness—an intoxicating grandiose escape from reality. The Fugees had made an album in The Score that elegantly transported itself through samples, covers, and the dynamic melodic range of the New Jerusalem trio. An underground Hip-Hop group, the Refugees predated Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas in showing just how some (Nappy) Heads could be embraced by the pop masses. Jay Z made Reasonable Doubt, and Nas followed with It Was Written. In both cases, two old school Rap-rooted MCs were fitted with tailor-made sample beats, mafioso imagery, and a strong departure from the artists’ previous pool hall battles and park jams. Put another way, Hip-Hop was winning with cinematic themes and ’70s and ’80s hit retreads (see: “California Love,” “Killing Me Softly,” and “Street Dreams”). Additionally, from Tupac spitting at Biggie, Nas dissing both ‘Pac and Big, and Big dissing ‘Pac on Jay’s album–and a low-key jab of The Fugees aimed at Jeru The Damaja), beef seemed necessary to top the charts.

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OutKast had no controversy to offer. ‘Dre and Big were the ones who sat back and rather politely accepted their award for “Best New Rap Group” while Death Row and Bad Boy Records stirred the pot at the 1995 Source Awards one August earlier. Even when the crowd booed, 3000 told the entire Paramount Theater (including Dr. Dre, Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, Puff Daddy, Biggie, Lil’ Kim, Fat Joe, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and others), “But it’s like this though: I’m tired of close-minded folks. It’s like we got a demo tape that nobody wants to hear, but the South got somethin’ to say. That’s all I got to say.”

Perhaps Suge, Puffy, and Biggie weren’t the only artists to leave Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theater on August 3 with a vendetta. In April of ’95, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik had already earned a platinum plaque—no small feat for a debut. With 54 weeks between those boos and ATLiens, perhaps OutKast built its spaceship, not unlike the one Kanye West would rap about eight years later.

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In 1996, everything seemed bright lights, polished, overblown—Rap at its most decadent. The Fugees were shooting videos replicating James Bond spy missions. Nas was recreating Martin Scorsese montages, and ‘Pac and Dre were going Mad Max, with two big-budget videos to alternate mixes of the same hit record. When “Elevators (Me & You)” released in July, OutKast stayed home, quite literally. “’96 can be that year that all you player haters can bite me” touted Daddy Fat Sax, perhaps grabbing his crotch facing the jeering peers from The Source Awards. The single and its video were deeply stripped down. The content was autobiographical OutKast, and it captured the charms and pace of the South in one melodically addictive record. The gold single would go to #12, a stark contrast sonically to records released by De La Soul, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest of that month. While peers were lifting Zapp, Bob Marley, and Kurtis Blow, OutKast tapped into Rockabilly/Country icon Carl Perkins, in a manner that did not even sound like sampling. If Hip-Hop is the language of the drum, OutKast let their self-produced beat play the backseat to their own vocal instruments.

Rap had started to mimic studio wrestling with its feuds, bouts, and hyped storylines. OutKast’s comic book endeavor was ironically one of the realest in ’96. “Elevators” is a song about everybody coming up, and the group’s video contrasted the pair’s proud Blackness with their own message reaching listeners who could relate beyond race. From graduations, to 10 year-old cars, the song was Southern simplicity—using the planetary imagination.

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A month later, when the album followed the single, things were even more interesting. From a Portuguese prayer-poem at the album’s intro, it was a far cry from the usual commercial Rap theatrics. In the era of rappers killing one another on wax, OutKast looked their own mortality straight in the eye on “You May Die,” which states that there is nothing new under the sun (a sentiment Nas would use later, on “No Idea’s Original”). The evocative moment felt like a prayer before a mission into the unknown—exactly where the Dungeon Family leaders were headed. By Track 2, “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac),” OutKast stated their Rap position with, “in the middle, we stay calm, we just drop bombs.” While the record easily applies to the clashing cultures in Greater Atlanta, Georgia, it also may explain ‘Kast’s place in the genre. While the coasts were packing heavy artillery on wax and to industry events, OutKast stayed quiet, making only their art explosive. The message was sent early on an album that celebrated its poetic license, density, and abstract points of view.

Behind only Pearl Jam, ATLiens landed at #2 on the charts. The LaFace Records release was much more subdued then its ’94 predecessor. Dré, Big, and Mr. DJ produced the would-be first two singles, with Organized Noize taking nine of the 16 tracks (including Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown, and Ray Murray’s take on the single). Despite two producers, the work is incredibly cohesive—with only its deliveries in common with its previous LP.

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At a time when the beat was overtaking the typical Rap vocals, ATLiens absolutely had something to say. “Babylon” was an indictment on OutKast’s generational peers. The two soulful MCs pointed to all the distractions in the world (from drugs to guns) that were holding back the people, the message, and the quality of life. The verses did not have the answers, but stated there was nothing cool about being unaware. André 3000 went into deep detail about coming-of-age sexual experiences and his attraction to the female form in the era when “hoochie” and “ho'” owned much of the Rap vernacular (as seen below, Outkast was not above using those, either). If a song could make an artist appear vulnerable when spitting, “Babylon” could be it—without much beat to shield it. Still, ‘Kast complemented the song with “Jazzy Belle.” This was the duo’s take on Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down,” while quietly placing blame both on loose women, and predatory men at once. In each song, the rich background vocals served the tracks beautifully at the chorus.

“Millennium” was another cut that embraced vulnerability. At a time when Tupac had seemingly traded his sensitivity for a brutish stance, ‘Dre and Big Boi made a song completely in their feelings. The record was questioning inward, openly depressed, and exasperated with one’s surroundings. One could argue that this track carved a lane for some of the sorts of song themes later explored by Drake, A$AP Rocky, and Kanye West. OutKast came across as two fully formed people, who were not uniform personalities. More like the first album, Big Boi clung to his fast-talking, fast-loving, joint-smoking player persona stacked with depth. André had come forth as an eccentric, who started to doodle outside of the lines of who he presented in the earlier part of the decade. Reportedly going sober during recording, he was incredibly elevated in his rhyming and production. These aliens were easy to relate to.

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While ATLiens is dripping with universal themes, these MCs were making powerful Rap industry commentary. Just as André 3000 did in the past week with Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise),” the group poked fun at the wack. “Y’all niggas jokes just like The Joker / I’m sick of these wack-ass rappers like I’m tired of hoes in chokers” chided Big Boi on “Two Dope Boyz.” As Dré and Big proudly illustrated that the world moved slower in the South, they equally proved that rappers delivered their soliloquies with speed. Jay Z, ‘Pac, and Treach had seemingly tapped the brakes with some of their deliveries at the time, while OutKast was flooring it.

The sounds of Rap records at the time of ATLiens was starting to get homogenized. The biggest artists in the culture were taking overt basslines, choruses, and sometimes remaking songs entirely (in the case of the Fugees). Organized Noize and Earthtone Ideas (Outkast & Mr. DJ) approached their music not unlike the Diggin’ In The Crates collective or Pete Rock. The LP samples Quincy Jones, The Commodores, and Parliament. However, those sources are not in-your-face. What was taken, and how it was used, was gentle-handed. Instead, much of the album was fortified by an ensemble in the studios that included Goodie Mob, Witchdoctor, Joi, Jazzyfatnastees, Trina Broussard, and Cool Breeze. There were no major samples or grand guests on ATLiens. This album was rich within its own confines, and as self-contained as any mid-’90s masterpiece.

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In retrospect, ATLiens is a Southern Rap pinnacle. Joining Scarface’s The Diary and UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty (released less than a month prior) this album basked in its elements. If Hip-Hop embraced the regional iconography of low-riders, towering project houses, bikini-clad women, gang-controlled streets, or Moet in rugged nightclubs, so would Dré and Big. This is the album that would create a lane for Big K.R.I.T., Devin The Dude, and Killer Mike. Just as artists from the East and West had tapped lines into each other’s sounds previous, OutKast’s ATLiens would go on to prove itself deeply influential to Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Ab-Soul.

OutKast has the luxury of a handful of classic albums. ATLiens being the magnum opus is up for heated debate. However, one can easily argue that it was the most forward-thinking album at the most pivotal time. Within nine months of its release, Tupac and Biggie were both dead. The Fugees would be all but disbanded, while Jay Z, Nas, and Snoop Dogg transcended from great MCs to becoming aspirational lifestyle rappers. Despite its success (perhaps due to a million or more of people whose ways of living weren’t otherwise represented in the Rap mainstream), ATLiens never wanted acceptance. Unlike the works that followed, it seemingly ignored what made for sales, radio, or heavy rotation video. Outkast led with skills, message, and three dimensional themes. At a time when the Golden-Era party was soon to end with gunfire and a mass exodus, these intergalactic Everymen created an imaginary world that felt a lot like home. In science fiction, we often can see our flaws, our potential, and most importantly, our souls.