If Outkast’s debut made the case that Big Boi and Andre 3000 were legitimate rappers, then their sophomore album proved that they were great artists. While the straight-forward gangster-pimpin’ vibe on Southernplayalistic was indeed awesome, the experimental nature of ATLiens was-- no, is-- absolutely mind-blowing. From the opening prayer that gives way to the robotic “greetings earthling” to the very end, Outkast proved that they were some of hip-hop’s most interesting subjects.
Andre and Big Boi did a lot of growing up in the twenty-eight months between the release of Southernplayalistic and ATLiens. It’s something that Dungeon Family member Big Rude accredited partially to the success of their first tour, saying that, “They started understanding the power they had in their music. They started showing a swagger that certain artists have—the ones that are stars." It’s also worth noting that Big Boi had his first child, and Andre came out of a two-year relationship.
While the first record focused on drug-dealing, pimpin’, and general hoodrat debauchery, ATLiens was much more conscious in its lyrical approach. On the title track, Andre 3000 is heard saying, “God works in mysterious ways so when he starts the job of speaking through us we be so sincere with this here, no drugs or alcohol so I can get the signal clear as day.” It’s a far cry from “Crumblin’ Erb,” where he’s concerned about dropping his weed sack while twistin’ one up.
The funky, new style of consciousness also touched on the intergalactic theme that the production and the album art would lead on. On “E.T. (Extraterrestrial),” Andre 3000 spit one of his most introspective verses in his legendary career:
“Just can't be scared to spread your wings, head to better things
Maybe the mockingbird and nightingale they want to sing
Keeping this thing alive, to the table's what we bring
We like hailstorms and blizzards in the middle of the spring
It was unlike anything else in hip-hop at the time, which was cool with music lovers, but sometimes over the heads of many members of the hip-hop community. The reception to the album would later inspire lines on Aquemini, such as, “them niggas that thank you soft and say y'all be ‘gospel rappin'’ but they be steady clappin' when you talk about bitches & switches & hoes & clothes & weed. Let's talk about time travelin', rhyme javelin, somethin' mind unravelin' - get down.”
There was also a fair bit of material that has to do with the music industry itself, demonstrated on “Mainstream,” "Ova Da Wudz," and “Elevators (Me & You).” Andre says on "Mainstream," while mocking industry suits and sucker MCs, “I bite whatever that's looking tasty, water it down then swallow.” On the latter he describes an encounter with a fan who sees him on a higher plateau, incapable of understanding that they’re equal people, both in the same struggle.
“Babylon” features some highly emotional lines from both Andre and Big Boi. Dre starts the track by coming in before the beat, to paint the picture of his upbringing: “I came into this world high as a bird from second-hand cocaine powder. I know it sounds absurd, I never tooted but its in my veins.” On the third verse, Big Boi struggles to let go of his late Aunt Renee, who passed around the time this album was created. “People don't know the stress I'm dealing with day to day / Speaking about the feeling I'm possessing for Renee / Moping around and wondering where she stay / Saw her last that she lay / Give it another day I say / But the Lord he taketh away / Now give it back lawd.” The ambient beat from Organized Noize, who handled most of the album's production, helps to give additional emphasis to these psychological insights. The ethereal sample of Vangelis was a left-field selection for the hip-hop beat-makers to choose.
The production on the entire album is a little left of center, though, especially for 1996. At a time when the Biggie-Pac rivalry was ruling the media’s exposure of hip-hop, and Mafioso records seemed to comprise the flavor-of-the-year, there was simply nothing like this going on. It was like the same intergalactic space beings that inspired George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic had touched down in the Dungeon, delivering a mission to Andre and Big Boi. Obviously Clinton paid attention to the album himself, because he would go on to collaborate with Outkast on Aquemini’s “Synthesizer.”
The beats are thick on each and every song on the album. With a touch of melancholy, the beats truly embody that cohesive space-aged vibe the duo was aiming for. There’s a ton of ambient soundscapes with scratches, spacey bloops, and guitar parts to add textures to the track. “Decateur Psalm,” “Millenium,” “Ova Da Wudz,” and “Jazzy Belle” are just a few of the standout beats for an album that has a super-thick sound.
ATLiens made strides to open up hip-hop to a world of creativity and experimentation. We won’t say that the genre was stale at the time of release, because ’96 was a golden year for rap music, but the landscape of the genre was not widely varied. Lyrically and sonically, this record did wonders for critics and enthusiasts to find a new way to appreciate hip-hop. It’s a dense record, like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and it doesn’t follow any of the trends of the day. While the record didn’t gain Outkast a wild amount of mainstream success, it has gone double platinum in the United States, and begin to pave the way to Stankonia’s chart-topping success. It’s worth noting that ATLiens did debut at number two on the Billboard 200 the week it was released.
There’s never been a duo like Outkast. Their level of experimentation has made them one of the most interesting stories in rap music history. They’re an artist’s artist, continuously breaking borders and boundaries to deliver a fresh take on hip-hop music. While each album is a standout, ATLiens was the first time Andre and Big Boi really stretched into their galactic well of inspiration to produce something that can only be described as “other-worldly.” We’re lucky that these ATLiens chose Earth to deliver their message to.