Exploring the mystical themes at the heart of Outkast's "ATLiens" on its 20th anniversary.
Imagine pressing play on ATLiens for the first time in 1996 (it took me around ten more years to do so, I was 5 at the time). You're familiar with Outkast, whose debut album dropped two years prior and expanded the hip hop's borders to encompass Southern-fried funk, and maybe even Goodie Mob, who took that sound to darker, more gothic territory on Soul Food in '95. But nothing could prepare you for the minute-long boho, aquarian intro that is "You May Die." Piano, acoustic guitar, and Portuguese prayers fade in from silence, augmented by synth flourishes and watery sound effects and forming one of the most ambitious compositions by musicians within a hip hop context at the time. There's not a trace of funk-- gospel, perhaps, but seen through the lens of Afrofuturism. If you thought that the boos that Big Boi and Andre 3000 received at the 1995 Source Awards would scare them straight, force them to retreat into more culturally accepted norms, ATLiens' uninhibited retort doesn't take long to materialize.
The first rap album ever released by L.A. Reid's LaFace label (P.M. Dawn's "I'd Die Without You" single was the label's only hip hop release that predates Outkast), Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was a huge success, and earned Big Boi and Andre enough clout to convince the CEO to sign Goodie Mob and take a more hands-off approach on ATLiens. The duo also formed a stronger bond with Mr. DJ, forming the Earthtone production team with him, and bringing him along on a trip to Jamaica that, according to Ben Westhoff's book "Dirty South," inspired them to ditch their cornrows in favor of a more natural look. Freeing themselves from the various tethers of "the industry"-- label meddling, reliance on outside producers, adherence to fashion-- Outkast proceeded to get down-to-Earth in the most extraterrestrial of ways. Down-to-Mars, if you will.
This stage in the duo's career of many was succinctly boiled down to "aliens, or some genies, or some shit" and "black righteous space" by the Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique-seeking denizens of Aquemini's skits. ATLiens' cover, done up in comic book style, shows Dre and Big bathed in a swathe of beam-me-up-Scotty blue, locked in battle positions, and surrounded by muscle-bound baldheads. For the first time, we get a sense of their contrast, Big Boi in a classic letterman jacket and Braves hat combo, and Andre's Soulquarian steez beginning to rear its head in the form of a green turban and wide-sleeved, Japanese-style shirt. The concepts of alienation, individuality, and reclamation of identity appear to butt heads, but those concepts are all key facets of Afrofuturism, previously explored by fellow musical cosmonauts George Clinton and Sun Ra. According to scholar Kodwo Eshun, the school of thought regularly uses "extraterrestriality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation."
Indeed, the album's title and artwork does appear a bit exaggerated once the actual rapping begins. Save for a few hooks, there's not many lyrics that expressly relate to outer space. "Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)" is as low to the ATL soil as the vehicle in its title, name-checking the Bankhead neighborhood, the city's "SWATS" (SouthWest Atlanta Too Strong") region, as well as Campbellton Road and the "South Post slums." Whereas the first album could sometimes gloss over details in Big and Dre's life in favor of universality, ATLiens is hyper-local and focused on the actual day-to-day of its creators. What's alien about that? Outkast suggested that their off-the-beaten-path hometown and way of life were foreign to the decadent hip hop industry at the time-- which they compared to biblical Babylon in a similar way that reggae artists used the ancient city of excess as a synonym for the Western world-- and that by bringing these to the forefront in their music, they were basically pulling up to your house, your radio, your car, in a spaceship shaped like a CD or cassette.
ATLiens is their attempt to communicate their Southernness, their philosophies, their surroundings to the rap-listening public, many of whom all but pulled out their shotguns and started blindly firing at that UFO that somehow ended up onstage at the '95 Source Awards. Andre recalled that night in a brilliant defense of Southern rap in his first verse on album closer "13th Floor/Growing Old":
I'm confessing one more lesson from the South, we in the house tonight
Now hootie who wants to oppose? Suppose
We rolls through Headland and Delowe
Where me and my n*ggas would pass the flow
And got down for ours like hind catchers
My mind catches flashbacks to the black past
While mind close n*ggas laugh at
The Southern slang, finger waves and Mojo chicken wangs
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 partner
Gather your thoughts
There's just so much in there. The "Hootie Hoo" callback, the origins of the Dungeon Family, the "black past" Andre attempts to channel every time he raps, the South's derogatory image in popular culture, the region's history of "booty bass" music and how similar it is to vaunted hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa's work. Aquemini would further explore Big and Dre's place within hip hop (in my mind, it's a concept album about their actual lives, if that makes sense), but ATLiens does it with one of the boldest "Us Vs. Them" mentalities ever laid to wax. Anytime you're reducing your opposition to a finite description, you're going to caricature them, and in 1996, Outkast considered a particularly huge portion of hip hop culture their opposition. This resulted in some ugly stereotyping on their parts. The guys on the Aquemini skits may have had some decent reasons to turn their noses up at the "righteous" aspect of ATLiens after all.
Outkast's critiques of law enforcement and the music industry were pretty sound, taking on the War on Drugs on "Decatur Psalm" and pimp-like record companies on "Ova Da Wudz," but when it came to women, they were downright patronizing at times. In their futuristic imagining of a present informed by African heritage, they (Andre especially) viewed themselves as kings and their significant others as queens, but while there seemed to be no penalties for kings' promiscuity, queens became "hoes" as soon as they started "fucking a different n*gga every time they get the feeling to." The song "Jazzy Belle" is a slut-shaming anthem, where Big Boi calls himself a "user and abuser" of women seconds after damning a licentious girl to "go to hell and lay with Lucifer," and Andre gets sick to his stomach when he learns that a girl he liked in high school is now a lesbian. It's jarring, especially because the beat is so smooth and Outkast are generally considered so "conscious," but then again, the best jazz-rap album in history has an outtake that's possibly the most homophobic rap song in history. Outkast certainly brought a valuable, at times culturally nourishing, perspective to music, but they, like most other self-righteous rappers, weren't necessarily occupying a moral high ground over more popular artists like Snoop Dogg or Puff Daddy.
There are thousands of rap albums that attempt to say "the industry is wack, we're different," but ATLiens is the best of them. Andre and Big Boi cloaked this message in conceptual mysticism and a truly intoxicating sonic environment, but it still strode through, emerging sounding much cooler than your average cry for attention. The creativity at play here is incredible, far removed from the dull retreads that today's hip hop conservatives favor as backdrops for their similar Afrocentrist thoughts and social commentary, and extending beyond the actual music to the flows, wordplay, and even a good deal of the song concepts. Outkast would further shed their inhibitions and preachiness on their next two releases, but as a cohesive statement and an integral piece of the Afrofuturist continuum, ATLiens is yet another one of their contributions that still seems unparalleled to this day.