Stunning hip-hop futurism born from the Balmy Georgia air...
'ATLiens' artwork

Although Atlanta’s OutKast had been booed by sections of the crowd at the infamous 1995 Source Awards, the general attitude towards southern hip-hop from New York’s notoriously introverted and elitist rap fraternity in 1996 still tended to be a mix of casual indifference and haughty dismissal, rather than the explicitly hostile territorial onslaught and outright bile reserved for many west coast rappers at the time.

OutKast’s debut album, 1994’s superb ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’, depicted a party-loving playa lifestyle, with thick regional slang and potent weed smoke hanging heavy in the balmy Georgia air. Yet despite the critical acclaim and commercial success that the album found, for many east coast-centric rap purists Atlanta may as well have been another planet.

So it was on their follow-up set ‘ATLiens’ – which dropped 20 years ago this weekend – that the duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi fully embraced this perceived outsider status. Themes of isolation and struggle were mixed with elements from science fiction, and the resulting album proved to be a mature, focused and multi-dimensional work that expanded their sound and hinted at their future boundary-pushing tendencies.

While ‘Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)’ and the title track are an impressive opening doubleheader which reaffirm the crew’s credo laid down on their previous work, it’s the deeper and more introspective moments that really light up ‘ATLiens’. The album’s big single and linchpin, the still-astonishing ‘Elevators (Me & You)’, charted the group’s rise – like those titular elevators - up through Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. Yet with a cavernous beat backed by sci-fi bleeps and understated keys - and that vaguely haunting chorus – it’s far from your typical rags-to-riches rap boast. The understated backdrop provides a fine setting for Andre’s sober commentary on how the fleeting nature of fame mirrors the attendant uncertainties of a regular day job: “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…”

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The crew continue their study of music industry politics on ‘Ova Da Wudz’, with another sparse, ghostly instrumental this time underpinning a stark warning from Dre of how “everybody wanna get signed, but I’m here to tell ya/Record companies act like pimps/Getting paid off what we made when we the ones that's fly like blimps…”

For the music, production outfit Organized Noize tapped into a range of black American music from times past for inspiration. George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic movement was perhaps the most obvious influence on the underlying spacy vibe, though ‘Mainstream’ contains blues elements, while the awesome ‘13th Floor/Growing Old’ offered hints of gospel. And while the beats often carried an opaque, otherworldly, floaty vibe, lyrically Dre and Big Boi remain grounded in the streets throughout ‘ATLiens’. In short, it sounded like nothing else out at the time; in fact, Nas’s ‘It Was Written’ and Jay Z’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’, two other major rap albums released that summer, now sound stiflingly conservative in comparison.

‘13th Floor/Growing Old’ is perhaps the most expansive cut on the set, with reflections on religion, racism, materialism and drug-pushing rappers. And in defiance of the crew’s detractors, Andre’s first verse offers a warm tribute to his East Point environs and southern hip-hop culture: “My mind catches flashbacks to the black past/While mind close niggas 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…”

It all proved to be a vigorous declaration that hip-hop from below the Mason-Dixon line could be – and was - about much more than simply the OTT ultraviolence of Houston’s Geto Boys, the bawdy party raps of Miami’s 2 Live Crew or the eye-melting Pen & Pixel album covers of New Orleans’ faintly absurd No Limit Records. Dre and Big Boi had helped bolster the credibility of southern hip-hop, and even the most hardened backpackers were now on board. As regional rap enjoyed a remarkable rise over the next few years, Atlanta itself was transformed from an outpost on the boundaries of an overly-centralised genre into hip-hop’s de facto capital city, boasting major players such as Young Jeezy, T.I. and Ludacris in the 2000s through to today’s stars like Future, Killer Mike and Gucci Mane.

It may not boast the explosive sonic pyrotechnics found on their later albums (‘B.O.B.’ from ‘Stankonia’, say, or ‘GhettoMusick’ from ‘Speakerboxxx’/‘The Love Below’). It may not be as good as 1998’s stunning ‘Aquemini’ (still the group’s true masterpiece). But, in the end, ‘ATLiens’ remains the biggest, most important and most progressive stride in OutKast’s long path towards all-conquering greatness.

Words: Hugh Leask (@HughSnoozeULose)

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