'ATLiens' Isn't OutKast's Best Album, But It Was Their Bridge to Greatness

On August 26, 2016

OutKast's ATLiens is our August Hip-Hop Record of the Month, celebrating its 25th anniversary. You can read new Listening Notes for the record here and below, you can read the essay we published in 2016, celebrating ATLiens on its 20th anniversary.

One night last October, I looked up and realized I was at Harry Houdini’s estate in the Hollywood Hills. There were warm red lights seeping out from under every structure. There were strings of white bulbs spanning patios and backyards and foyers. There were non-descript Stetson hats suspended by invisible wires. They dotted the sky all around me: black hats, grey hats, brown hats just feet from my skull.

I looked over the balcony — a clot of people pushed through a gate and poured into a small clearing. Just then, DJ Esco ambled out on stage, so thin I worried that all his jewelry would drag him sideways. A beat, then another. Finally the man of the evening, Future, materialized, and ran through an abbreviated list of hits from the 12 months prior, stopping only to extoll the virtues of the dangling hats, which he called “Future hats,” which were the evening’s raison d’etre, and which have made virtually zero impact as a fashion accessory in the 10 months since.

After his set, my friends and I slipped through the crowd and navigated a series of hills and staircases, all carved out of stone and connected by dirt trails. We arrived at a hidden swimming pool, where Future was waiting for one of the guys I came with to interview him. We all stood quietly at the pool’s edge, staring into the water, while Future said he was “halfway happy” and that he sees ghosts “everywhere.” Then my friend asked the rapper, who had grown up in and around the Dungeon Family’s studio sessions, what his favorite record from the Atlanta collective had been. “ATLiens,” Future said. “It’s like the beginning stages of them going to the next level, of creating something great.”

“Them,” of course, refers to OutKast, who broadcast the Dungeon’s prophecies to the world starting in 1994, or at least at the '95 Source Awards. ATLiens was their second album, the first one to make a major dent commercially, but also a firm rejection of the sunniness that crept into their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. It was relentlessly dark, but not indulgent: Dré and Big Boi preferred to turn their focus outward, a lens that would prove important when they wrestled fully with mortality on Aquemini two years later. Future characterized it perfectly: ATLiens was the bridge they had to walk from the reverence to the masterpiece.

Speaking of Aquemini, let’s jump forward in the story (because, as Big Boi’s feelings on chokers prove, time is a flat circle). The first song on that album is “Return of the G,” where André raps a verse you still can’t hit properly in your car 20 years later, and where Big Boi says “A player just wanna kick back with my gators off and let my little girl blow bubbles,” which tells you a staggering amount of information about the speaker in fewer than 20 words.

Tacked on to the end of “Return” is a skit, where a few guys walk into a record shop. They’ve already got the Goodie Mob album, but when they inquire about Bob Marley and a fake group called the Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique, the store owner tries to sell them advance copies of Aquemini. The men demur:

“Man, first they was some pimps, man, then they was some aliens or some genies or some shit. Then they be talking about that black righteous space, man, whatever. Man, fuck them. I ain’t fucking with them no more.”

Popular pushback to ATLiens makes sense: It ditches most of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s funk and soul influences in favor of something cold, something more alien. The debut had “Player’s Ball”; the follow-up was about taking the gators off.

Now exhale and rewind: “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)” opens with that disembodied voice (“Greetings. Earthling.”) and unfurls into those industrial drums and that exposed piano line, all underscored by a slow-burning vocal sample. All of those elements stay around for the album’s duration — this is the overture.

Big Boi raps first and says he’s “sick of these wack-ass rappers.” But you’re used to rappers saying that, you’re used to the competition and the sparring and the shadowboxing. You’re not ready for André, who waits for one of those wack-ass rappers to approach him and, instead of showing how much more skilled he is, simply... opts out:

*“This old sucker MC stepped up to me

*Challenged André to a battle and I stood there patiently * *As he spit and stumbled over clichés — so-called ‘freestyling’ * *Whole purpose was just to make me feel low — I guess you wilding * *I say, ‘Look boy, I ain’t for that fuck shit, so fuck this * *Let me explain, only-child style, so you don’t diss * *I grew up to myself, not 'round no park bench * *Just a nigga bustin’ flows off in apartments.'” * Even with its keen eye to the outside world, ATLiens is aggressively anti-social. The album before was a dialogue between André and Big Boi, often literally: when André was shouting “Can your punk ass come out to play?” he was standing on bike pegs while Big Boi pedaled. On Aquemini, the two delved into deep ideological back-and-forths, at times on their sophomore effort the two exorcise so many private ghosts that they don’t have time for secret handshakes. When André opens “Babylon,” “I came into this world high as a bird, from second-hand cocaine powder / I know it sounds absurd,” who’s to say Big Boi understands him just because they share studio sessions? The album is haunted by the feeling that they’re so isolated they can’t even reach out to save one another.

The best verse on the best song from ATLiens isn’t even by an OutKast member. Cool Breeze opens “Decatur Psalm” with the sort of story that lingers in your head for hours: it starts in medias res, his partner having been killed while driving his Mercedes. Breeze is in the deceased’s Lexus and makes a series of clipped, cryptic phone calls, leaving out key details (like where his sister lives) in case the Feds are listening in, as he assumes they are. It’s the last round-up, tell everybody who owe us a dime, it’s the great-hoe-round-up-your-money time. Then Big Boi raps about needing to drop his daughter off “'Cause them niggas at the corner store been looking at me for too long.” He fires two bullets in the air as he drives off, as a warning — as he puts it, “I put two in the sky to let 'em know I’m babysitting.”

The most famous song on ATLiens is “Elevators (Me & You).” It has none of the defiant chaos that Organized Noize trafficked in, because André made it on his own — probably alone, probably after a bad encounter with a prying friend from a past life. His flow changes in the middle of the verse (“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”) couldn’t have been crafted by anyone other than the architect.

“Mainstream” is a dirge for legal money. “Ova da Wudz” is a swan dive into Reeboks and Isotoners and idle threats. No matter how fair either rapper recedes into his own psyche, or into the ether, there are bills and babies and masked assailants lurking to snap him back to reality. “Who knows what I must face when I leave this recording booth?”

It might not be the duo's best album — it's certainly not the easiest to play with the windows down in August. But it seeps into the folds of your brain in a way few records can, or even aim to. ATLiens is music to chain smoke to, to clean your apartment just enough to salvage the security deposit to, to actively avoid any type of closure and emotional stability to. Because sometimes, those are the things you're doing when you're on the verge of creating something great.

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Paul Thompson

Paul Thompson is a writer whose work has appeared in Vulture, Pitchfork, Playboy, and many other publications. He's the author of I FEEL LIKE DYING and the forthcoming WESTERN DEATH FACE. He lives in Los Angeles.

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