OutKast Evolved With 'ATLiens' and Forced Hip-Hop to Do the Same

If listening to OutKast over the past 22 years has taught us anything it’s that the truest act of hip-hop bravado is allowing oneself to evolve.

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Complex Original

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This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.

Earth, Jupiter, Mars
Hoes, clothes, cars
It’s who you are

If listening to OutKast over the past 22 years has taught us anything it’s that the truest act of hip-hop bravado is confounding expectations and allowing oneself to evolve. This might seem like an obvious point now with the ability in hindsight to chart André 3000 and Big Boi’s joint creative shape-shifting from album to album, but there was a time when such things weren’t necessarily perceived as part and parcel of OutKast’s ethos. That time was 1996. Coming off a beloved debut from two years prior, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, that redefined and reclaimed ATL rap post-Arrested Development/-Kriss Kross/-imported booty bass as the domain of thinking-man’s dope boyz, OutKast could have stayed the course of their flagship anthem “Player’s Ball” and continued making wickedly soulful and stylish S.W.A.T.S. songs to slam Coupe Deville steel to. Instead they did what important artists do when given the chance—they rejected complacency. More specifically they looked upward and inward, contemplated the cosmos and themselves, and re-entered the earth’s atmosphere as ATLiens.

 Granted, self-exploration was an essential part of OutKast’s output from jump, Southernplayalistic’s defiant centerpiece query and retort (“Are you an OutKast?...I know I am. As a matter of fact, fuck being anything else”) both a declaration of identity and expression of solidarity with anyone young, black, Southern, or otherwise ostracized by society at large. Even amidst Southernplayalistic’s pimptastic hustle-heavy verbiage there were signs of Dré and Big Boi’s emotional estrangement from the streets in the beautifully meditative “Crumblin’ Erb” and an outright Scared Straight-style morality play, “Git Up Git Out.” By ATLiens, though, this sense of disconnection had infected their relationship with a rap music landscape they’d already begun growing bored and disenchanted with. Despite enjoying terrific commercial and critical success their rapport with hip-hop’s then-influential NYC-based cognoscenti/fandom could feel tenuous—as exhibited by how easily the group got caught in the crossfire of hostilities between the Bad Boy and Death Row camps at the infamous 1995 Source Awards ceremony at the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden, booed by a hometown crowd conflating anyone non-New York with being anti-New York. Addressing all of this, rather than simply trotting out Moresouthernplayalisticadillacmuzik as a sophomore effort, became imperative.

“It’s like everybody’s talking about sipping champagne and being big time,” André told Billboard magazine at the time. “So we just took it upon ourselves to do something new.” ATLiens’ space imagery outwardly reinvented OutKast (CD copies featured a fold-out comic strip depicting the group as creative freedom fighters versus a Darth Vader by way of a Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk-esque nemesis dubbed Nosamulli). But more importantly it aligned them within the tradition of Afro-futurist Arkestras, Motherships, and Soulsonic Forces that sought enlightenment via innovative sounds that could keep a party live.

Having sworn off drink, smoke, and Southernplayalistic’s gun chatter, André announces his pen’s empowerment on the brilliant title track (“Put my glock away I got a stronger weapon/That never runs out of ammunition so I’m ready for war OK) and promptly utilizes it to ponder issues beyond the sphere of player profiling (“The future of the world depends on/If or if not the child we raise gon’ have that nigga syndrome/Or will it know to beat the odds regardless of the skin tone…. They alienate us ’cause we different”). With its twangy “throw yo hands in the ai-yer”s and classic Bronx breakbeat accents (from Dexter Wansel’s thematically apropos “Theme of the Planets”), it’s the platonic stylistic meeting point between East Tremont Avenue and East Point ATL.

Just in case anyone still had it twisted regarding OutKast’s keen sense of history, André throws the equivalent of a when-you-diss-ATL-you-diss-yourself back at NYC with the entirety of his first verse on “13th Floor/Growing Old,” pointing out the direct lineage from “Planet Rock” to BX-raised Atlanta bass pioneer MC Shy-D. Now firmly entrenched as Dré’s “cool as a polar bear’s toe nails”-foil Big Boi nonetheless constructs his own lane of critical thinking about rap’s unbalanced ecosystem—on “13th Floor/Growing Old” chiding the pervasiveness of trendy pimpology as “phony,” eloquently remarking of longevity-challenged imaginary players, “Fridays are tight, but Saturday just makes it old.”

“Mainstream,” featuring fellow Dungeon Family members T-Mo and Khujo from Goodie Mob, minces even fewer words in its condemnation of trend masquerading as art (chorus: “Think it is when it ain’t all peaches and cream/That’s why some are found floating face down in the mainstream”). Whatever the song’s lyrics may say about feeling creatively isolated, the track sounds like it as well—a cocoon of hypnotic Theremin-like high tones and subtle wah-wahs punctuated by faint “uh, y’all know what it is”-es of ghostly, undetermined origin. It’s one of many perfect sonic constructions on ATLiens by producers Organized Noize, a.k.a. Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown.

Graduating from the warmer organ and Wurlitzer tones of their work on Southernplayalistic, they infuse ATLiens with sublime atmospheric touches: that stark surf guitar set against the turntable cuts of “Wheelz of Steel”; the moody nod to “Player’s Ball” inspiration Curtis Mayfield via the Five Stairsteps’ “wee-oooh”s on “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)”; and most of all those precise splashes of reverb and echo that bathe the rimshots on “Elevators.” The last track, an allegory for movin’ on up to the outer limits Roald Dahl-style sees its started-from-the-bottom success story narrative knocked off course by André’s party-pissing admission that like many of his listeners his ends ain’t lasting to the end of the week, a tidy encapsulation of the group’s knack on ATLiens for deviating from the expected in an honest way. (The single went top 10 anyways, because gravity ain’t no thang.)

Moments like this, rapped conversationally like confessions from a friend, find power in their intimacy. They certainly felt that way the first time I really experienced ATLiens back in the day—listening to it repeatedly on a cheap stereo in a modest shared office space in NYC’s Chinatown during the graveyard shift of a spring night in ’96. With the sound of the rats running between the walls almost as loud as the music, my old comrade in rap journalistic adventures Sacha Jenkins was pulling an all-nighter trying to file a review of the album for whatever publication he was freelancing for at the time; I was on the other side of the office working on an assignment that’s now fully faded from memory.

Back then I was one of those NY-centric hip-hop snobs André dismissed as “mind close” and Big Boi rebutted with a “fuck that ‘country’ shit”—faithfully dedicated to Preemo beats and unwavering in my belief in Wu-Tang over everything, only intermittently appreciative of OutKast for their singles and the fact that they let Diamond D put the Brethren drums on his remix for “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” But as the album played over and over, and again and again, and “Jazzy Belle”’s somber finger wags at promiscuity gave way to the quiet intensity of “Babylon,” and Witch Doctor’s voice bellowed, “Out of this world/Are you alien?” through “E.T. (Extraterrestrial)”’s existential ruminations my focus invariably strayed from whatever I was supposed to be doing, increasingly entranced by the transmissions. It was while stumbling out on the streets just before dawn that I humbly concluded that reinvented or not these Atlanta dudes still had some pimpin’ in ’em for sure ’cause they’d turned this East Coast elitist the fuck out.

As many times as I’d probably heard ATLiens’ haunting intro, “You May Die,” replayed that night I still wasn’t attentive to its significance then. Now I think I better understand. Evolution requires letting the things you once were expire. OutKast were not of this world because they absolutely did not fear death.

Want more from The 1996 Project? Visit the links below.
Bout Houston: Bun B and ESG Remember the Year the City Broke Out"
"Is the Geto Boys’ ‘The Resurrection’ the Most Underrated Album in Rap Music History?"
"The Best Rap Songs of 1996"

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