Label: LaFace Records
When OutKast—made up of 18-year-old friends and high school classmates André "Dre" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton—released their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in 1994, the goal was simple: put Atlanta on the map. ATLiens, the 1996 follow-up, was a reflection on Kast's success, and the realizations of what that success would mean for the friends and their beloved city. Still not yet 20, Dre and Big Boi had become cultural ambassadors, and their seeming uncertainty about the role, combined with an absolute certainty in their sound, fueled what would be the best album of their career.
This is no knock against 1998's highly polished Aquemeni—which is a near-perfect record—or even Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, a dense, gristly slab of Southern, country, gangsta funk. But ATLiens represented the pinnacle of that distinctly laid-back, funk-based Atlanta sound, fueled by Organized Noize's (and their own) largely sample-free production, with the only features coming from fellow Dungeon Family denizens Goodie Mob and Cool Breeze.
OutKast didn't speak to outsize aspirations and brand-name dreams as much as they spoke to the here and now.
Like its predecessor, the entire album paid lyrical tribute to the city, with multiple references to Decatur, SWATS, Bankhead and other neighborhoods, ones that would feature prominently in all of OutKast's work. "It ain't over 'til the fat girl in Decatur sing," goes the hook on the aptly titled "Decatur Psalm." ATLiens is a secular gospel record in praise of a place, no doubt one of the albums Killer Mike alludes to on 2012's R.A.P. Music.
It's also one of the most honest rap records to come out of the '90s. As other rappers built gangsta mythologies and created alter egos for their alter egos, Dre and Big Boi rhymed about Cadillacs and malls, fish and grits, shared experiences that informed their worldview. Differences were beginning to crop up, like Dre's newfound sobriety (compare and contrast Dre's "no drugs or alcohol so I can get the signal clear as day" on the title track to Big Boi's "see, I smoke good cause, see, it goes good with them flows, bwoi" on "Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)"), but they were still more alike than not.
They weren't all that separated from their audience, either. As Dre put it on lead single "Elevators (Me and You)" in a conversation with an imaginary fan: "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 young smoked-out gangstas had grown in a hurry, and realized they had more questions than answers—what other 19-year olds have ever recorded anything like "13th Floor/Growing Old," with Dre's "Because no one is free when others are oppressed/So we hit the stage and then we fly back to our nest."
Dre and Big Boi weren't the only outcasts, and they weren't the only ATLiens. (Nor was the latter a new feeling for them, as the robotic "Greetings, Earthlings" that led off ATLiens' opening "Two Dope Boyz" was cribbed straight from the intro to Southernplayalistic's last track, "Deep.") OutKast didn't speak to outsize aspirations and brand-name dreams as much as they spoke to the here and now, and while the accents and place names may have been alien to people from other regions, the themes—drugs, relationships, cars—were ones that were universally familiar. Atlanta welcomed the world in 1996 hosting the Summer Olympics, but it was its homegrown talent that would resonate. —Russ Bengtson