was a surprise. Released in 1996, as Atlanta groups like TLC
were blowing up and finally putting the city on the map, its title accurately described the public image of OutKast
that the release of this album generated. On Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
, their 1994 debut, 'Kast came off as an unusually talented duo of straight thug MCs staying faithful to the ATL sound. There were signs that Big Boi and Dre intended to push the envelope, but they were subtle enough to be accepted as mere creative touches to an excellent mainstream G-Funk record.
But OutKast's sophomore effort was a different beast. From its comic book cover to its spacey, atmospheric production, and especially considering its somewhat less gangsta subject matter, ATLiens
might as well have come from outer space as far as much of OutKast's audience was concerned. More traditional listeners were turned off, some completely, by 'Kast's transformation. But the eclectic, deep, and soulful production and the undeniably tight tag-team rhymes were more than simply extraterrestrial. They seemed divinely inspired by the bodacious black goddess printed on the CD. ATLiens
shook up OutKast's fan base, but those that remained when the shockwave was over realized they had a work of genius on their hands.
The album, like any early OutKast record, is a long, consistent, slow ride through your 'hood with the two philosopher-MCs trading proverbs and passing you the blunt. The record produced five singles, "Elevators (Me & You)," "Two Dope Boyz," "ATLiens," "Jazzy Belle," and "Wheelz Of Steel," the entire first third of the album, uninterrupted. This is not to say that the quality of the record is stacked toward the front. In fact, there really is no variation in quality on ATLiens
. None whatsoever.
But from the perspective of more traditional gangsta rap aficionados, the rhymes were startlingly unusual. Big Boi's opening verse in "ATLiens" is a blistering, mind-bending work of lyrical savvy, but it's definitely no "Ain't No Thang:"
Well it's the M-I-crooked letter, ain't no one better / And when I'm on the microphone you best to wear your sweater / 'Cause I'm cooler than a polar bear's toenails / Oh hell, there he go again talkin' that sh*t / Bend corners like I was a curve, I struck a nerve / And now you 'bout to see this Southern playa serve
But for those who appreciate a little artistic license in subject matter, the rapping is formidable from both MCs. The rhymes are never forced, the rhythms sync effortlessly with the crisp production, never lagging behind the beat, and Andre and Big Boi don't merely trade verses, they share
them. They operate in total synergy, a perfect team, and their abilities never flag, from the beginning of the record to the end.
"Millennium," the twelfth (and some would say best) track, could have easily been a hit in an ideal world, but perhaps Andre's singing gangsta-ghost chorus would have been too much for radio. In any case, it's certainly not too much for the record; any listener is sent soaring into orbit as this album builds to its steady climax in this track. From here, the album's denouement makes explicit the terms of OutKast's transformation, as Big Rube's spoken proclamations of "13th Floor/Growing Old" outline a worldly new outlook, leading into Dre's State of the Hip Hop Union address:
Take this music dead serious while others entertain / I see they makin' they paper so I guess I can't complain, or can I" / I feel they disrespectin' the whole thang / Them hooks like sellin' dope to black folks / And I choke when they food they serve ain't tastin' right...
...I grew up on booty shake, we did not know no better thang / So go 'head and diss it, while real hop-hippers listen / Started by Afrika Bambaataa, so you and your potnah / Gather your thoughts.
In no uncertain terms, OutKast set themselves apart from the nihilism of late-'90s mainstream hip hop with ATLiens
. As gangsta rap continued it's spiraling decline into the pop culture void, 'Kast salvaged the Southern scene and managed to establish Atlanta as one of those precious outposts around the country where hip hop would survive. ATLiens
may have alienated some conservative fans, but it also allowed OutKast the creative freedom to become the hip hop duolith that could outsell even the bleakest of the manufactured, colonized competition.