Happy 20th Anniversary to OutKast’s ATLiens, originally released August 27, 1996.
“We make timeless classics, whether it’s ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,’ ‘ATLiens,’ ‘Aquemini,’ ‘Stankonia’ or whatever it is. We put it out, and that shit still stands the test of time. You can pop that shit in right now and still knock it. We take pride in doing that. There’s no expiration date with our music.”
Big Boi’s declaration to XXL magazine a few years ago could not be more spot-on. OutKast has indeed made multiple timeless classics, a handful of which rank among the greatest albums in hip-hop’s rich forty-plus year history.
But, for better or worse, over the years I’ve observed three distinct camps of OutKast fans. First, you have the relatively naïve and uninformed masses that latched on to the group only upon hearing (or being force-fed, depending on your perspective) the admittedly addictive “Hey Ya!,” their most successful single to date and the driving force behind their 2003 double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Second, you have those who formally embraced André "André 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton with the release of their kaleidoscopic fourth long player Stankonia (2000), an experimental song suite that features the unforgettable singles “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean.”
And third, you have the diehard loyalists who have sworn their devotion to the Atlanta-bred duo since our ears were first treated to the Organized Noize-orchestrated, southern-fried funk brilliance of “Player’s Ball,” the duo’s debut single released in the fall of 1993. For us, their first three albums—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), ATLiens (1996), and Aquemini (1998)—are unparalleled genius, contenders for the greatest back-to-back-to-back trifecta of hip-hop albums ever made, along with the first three released by their iconic East Coast peers, Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul.
More importantly, OutKast’s early work placed the American South squarely and inextricably on the hip-hop map, proving that the genre was not destined to be exclusively bicoastal forever. Beyond their music, the group’s bravado and pride played no small part in convincing people to redefine the geographic boundaries of hip-hop.
Some may recall the infamous events of August 3, 1995, the day that The Source held its annual awards ceremony at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The tension-filled event represented a tipping point in hip-hop’s ill-fated but relatively short-lived East Coast versus West Coast feud of the mid-90s, with Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight and Bad Boy Records founder Sean “Puffy” Combs grandstanding on stage, while exchanging off-handed jabs directed toward each other’s reputations and respective stomping grounds.
One moment from that evening that you may not remember as vividly is what happened to OutKast when they were named Best New Artist, an honor they rightfully deserved based on the groundbreaking Southernplayalistic. Upon ascending to the podium to accept their award, and with the show already devolving into the absurd, André and Big Boi were welcomed by a cacophony of boos and hisses from the restless audience. To which André confidently replied “the south got something to say” and exited stage left.
It was a prescient proclamation, as the South did indeed rise to assume a more prominent role in the traditionally bicoastal hip-hop landscape, as labels like No Limit, Cash Money and Suave House redefined and diversified the sound of southern rap. And as history has proven since, OutKast has definitely had the last laugh.
Nearly thirteen months after their Source Awards triumph, OutKast put their money where their mouths were. Unveiled in the waning days of August 1996, the pair’s sophomore album ATLiens was—and still is—a revelation. "It's not your average, everyday album," Big Boi explained to The Source’s Miles Marshall Lewis in August 1996. "Listening to it, it's very phenomenal. It's gonna take the whole hip-hop thing to a whole 'nother level. Don't expect the same ol'. Just put it like this: it's something different."
The OutKast moniker itself has always suggested an anti-status quo bucking of convention and expectation. In the same vein, ATLiens’ extraterrestrial inspired, interstellar funk juxtaposed with existential themes of the S.W.A.T.S. existence represented a recalibration and evolution of sorts for the duo at the time. A shift toward more cosmic, leftfield strains of sound and deeper, more intricate narrative threads replete with noticeably more prominent symbolism and metaphor.
ATLiens also embodied the duo’s developing ambition and confidence in the studio. While sonic masterminds Organized Noize produced the entirety of Southernplayalistic, ATLiens showcases André and Big Boi’s first foray into producing themselves. Officially operating as Earthtone Ideas (later revised to Earthtone III), the duo and David “Mr. DJ” Sheats produced six of the album’s fourteen tracks, an achievement that the threesome would continue to build upon with Aquemini and Stankonia.
Opening with the subdued minute-long intro featuring Joi Gilliam’s plaintive vocals evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1973 Lovin’ Spoonful interpolation “Summer in the City,” the album quickly transitions to dense, enveloping soundscapes that bump in thrilling ways. The percussive, braggadocious “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)” begins with the duo’s “Greetings Earthlings” salutation and finds both emcees attempting to reaffirm their identity in the wake of their newfound fame. As Biggie once insisted, “things done changed” since their first album and they’re now more vulnerable to all of the parasites and haters trying to claim a piece of the action or challenge their credibility. As a result, André and Big Boi no longer feel completely at home in Atlanta, and they’ve become, figuratively speaking, aliens in their own city. From Player’s Ball to Player’s Dilemma, in other words.
The spaced-out title track follows, naturally, and boasts one of the most instantly memorable choruses you’ll ever hear (“Now throw your hands in the air / And wave 'em like you just don't care / And if you like fish and grits and all that pimp shit / Everybody let me hear you say, "O-Yea-yer"). Resistance to the head-nod is futile.
Undeniable highlights appear in the form of the scratch-heavy ode to the turntable “Wheelz of Steel,” the melodic groove of “Mainstream” featuring T-Mo and Khujo of their Atlanta comrades Goodie Mob, and the contemplative “Millennium.” In the opening verse of “Jazzy Belle” (think “Jezebel” meets “Southern Belle”), André explains that he has relinquished his previously chauvinistic ways in exchange for a refined appreciation for the opposite sex: “Oh yes I love her like Egyptian, want a description? / My royal highness / So many plusses when I bust that there can’t be no minus / Went from yelling crickets and crows / Bitches and hoes to queen thangs.” The remainder of the song unfurls as both a cautionary tale about the frivolous lifestyle of “easy” women and a rebuke of the men who either take advantage of them or let themselves be taken advantage of.
For me, the album’s finest moments arrive in the form of two poignant, downtempo compositions. With its unorthodox sound relative to OutKast’s previous fare on Southernplayalistic, I recall thinking that “Elevators (Me & You)” was a daring choice for the lead single, as it’s arguably one of the least radio-friendly tunes across the whole affair. But radio play be damned, this is one of the freshest, most uniquely conceived songs not just in OutKast’s prolific repertoire, but across the entirety of the hip-hop canon.
With lines such as André’s “Writing rhymes, tryna find our spot off in that light / Light off in that spot, knowing that we could rock,” the song examines the elevator-like ups and downs that he and his partner-in-rhyme have encountered in cultivating their music careers. In the song’s closing verse, he explores the frequently misunderstood dichotomy between artists’ fame and finances, confiding that “True, I've got more fans than the average man / But not enough loot to last me / To the end of the week, I live by the beat / Like you live check-to-check / If you don't move your feet then I don't eat / So we like neck-to-neck.”
The closing track and my personal favorite of the bunch, “13th Floor/Growing Old” is an introspective, piano-driven meditation on getting older, becoming wiser, placing life (and hip-hop) in perspective, and focusing on the substantive and enduring over the superficial and ephemeral. From Society of Soul mouthpiece Big Rube’s eloquent spoken word intro to Debra Killings soothing vocals to André and Big Boi’s pensive verses, it’s a stunning song that demands repeated listens.
Although OutKast were still in career ascendance mode when their sophomore album arrived twenty years ago, and their greatest critical and commercial triumphs were a few years down the road, ATLiens remains their bona fide masterpiece, at least in my book.
I remember buying the album the day it came out, a few weeks before the beginning of my sophomore year at UCLA. I had thankfully fled the freshman dorms in exchange for the more gratifying pastures of an off-campus apartment, which afforded my roommates and me the freedom to play our records at considerably louder volumes than we had been able to in our previous communal digs. As summer transitioned into fall that year, few albums were played as loudly and frequently in our apartment as ATLiens.
After being blown away by Southernplayalistic two years before, I never imagined that OutKast would transcend, let alone replicate, its greatness. But they did. And they accomplished the feat not by creating a repackaged carbon copy of the tried-and-true. Instead, with ATLiens, they expanded their musical palette in imaginative, transformative ways. And in the process, these two dope boyz from down south proved that they were no short-lived sensation, but rather peerless visionaries already placing their indelible stamp on hip-hop history.
“A dope album is one you listen to without skipping forward or winding through anything,” Big Boi told Vibe magazine in October 1996. “That’s what [ATLiens] is.” Precisely.