The commercial success and critical acclaim of OutKast is one of the most significant stories in modern-day (popular) music. Whether it was opening the doors for southern Hip-Hop/Rap in a time of West-coast / East-coast dominance, being the first Hip-Hop/Rap act to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, or making one of the catchiest songs of the 21st century (“Hey Ya”), OutKast has earned the tag of special for a variety of reasons.
Looking at the current music landscape of 2021, Hip-Hop/Rap dominates and offers a near endless creativity and eclecticism, whilst flagrantly capturing the Zeitgeist of 2020s youth and young adulthood. As the culture continues to diverge and branch off into unexplored worlds, it is crucial to mention Atlanta, Georgia as THE significant southern region that has established itself as a creative hub of the ever-expanding Hip-Hop subgenre ‘Trap’ music.
How we have found ourselves here is thanks to many talented and daring virtuosos in the past 25+ years, yet a name that comes to mind is no other than OutKast. Whether we are speaking of Killer Mike, T.I., Lil Baby, Young Thug or any other Atlanta-based rappers, Outkast has paved the way for these artists. One might not hear it directly in the aforementioned artist’s distinct styles, but OutKast opened the doors to eccentricity and allowed for more wild, experimental figures to grow within and beyond Hip-Hop/Rap as a music genre and culture. While many share this view, some others have gone out of their way to brazenly voice their lack of awareness and therefore also lack of respect to them.
Regardless of the petty discourse, one can argue that the moment that kicked off OutKast’s adventure into near-endless creativity began with “ATLiens”, their sophomore release in 1996 that had them crack the Billboard top 100 for the first time. Let us explore what makes this record great, unique and deserving of more attention to music listeners and especially hip-hop/rap enthusiasts 25 years after its release.
The principle reason why you should give ATLiens a / another listen, is not only for its enduring uniqueness in music overall, but within Hip-Hop/Rap music, as it also shows us why the genre and culture has evolved to what it is today. Released in the mid-90s, ATLiens finds itself in the middle of the thriving decade of Hip-Hop/Rap in which many of the blueprints of the genre were established. Dominant genre conventions and tropes like machismo, toughness and the “Guns, Drugs, Bitches'' lifestyle, underpinned by the way the Notorious BIGs, Dr. Dres and Snoop Doggs defined this era. Especially in the year of 1996, where high-profile releases of Tupac, Nas, Jay-Z and Fugees would come through, ATLiens was going to at least “exist” within the context of then dominant-themes.
(pic: Illinois Gordon)
(Link for Two Dope Boyz music video)
It would be an understatement to simply say that Outkast and specifically ATLiens was completely unlike the wave of Hip-Hop/Rap that was predominantly set in and culturally defined by the East-coast and West-coast. As the album’s first full-length track Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac) opens with a robo-tronic voice saying “Greetings, Earthling”, we acknowledge the presence of what appears to be otherworldly beings. The chorus of this track shows how these figures are surrounded by people indulging in destructive behaviour, yet amidst this chaos they stand in the middle, stay calm and drop (lyrical) bombs. Who are these figures? “Just two dope boys in a Cadillac”. At this point, the machismo and aggression of Hip-Hop/Rap seems rather cliché and exhausted, with André showing he is above petty confrontations “As he spit and stumbled over clichés, so called freestyling … // Look boy, I ain’t for that fuck shit – so fuck this”. This low-key thoughtfulness and even philosophical approach is just the beginning and serves as a mission statement to ATLiens. André and Big Boi follow-up on setting a good example by warning listeners about excess, whether that be in taking drugs or engaging in sexual activity like on “Jazzy Belle” or “Babylon”. While the former of the tracks might reek of over-diligence in policing women for their sexual choices, the core of the track, as of the others, is rooted in sending a clear message to listeners.
(link for “Elevators” music video)
Beyond the groovier & hard-hitting tracks like “ATLiens” or “Wheels of Steal”, André and Big Boi OutKast are conscious of expressing their mindful, cerebral lyrical content at the back of subdued, laid-back instrumentals. Even an eerie ethos will take more of a central role on tracks like “Elevators” or “E.T”, adding a spacy and outlandish vibe.
Things get more sombre and reflective on cuts like “Mainstream” and the closing track “13th Floor / Growing Old”, where Big Boi and André are essentially meditating on their place in the music industry. Particularly André in the latter track ponders whether his creativity is appropriate for the Hip-Hop/Rap musical genre in which he has placed himself, as he draws back on themes of wanting to send out a positive message to young Hip-Hop/Rap listeners. Moments like these show us the refreshing output of OutKast and how they offered something outside the standard rap became a testament to their success and legacy as artists.
It is without discussion or mild debate that we can say that ATLiens is a special record as it explores compelling themes at the back of well-crafted instrumentals and excellently executed and passionate performances. Putting it into context of the current landscape of Hip-Hop/Rap, how shall we see it?
For instance Hip-hop/Rap megastar Young Thug, known for his eccentric vocal style and fashion, is indifferent to OutKast, especially André 3000. As he appeared as a guest on T.I.’s ExpediTIously podcast in late November 2020, comparisons were drawn between himself and André 3000 for similar eccentricities in their art and form of expression. Young Thug subsequently blurts out “I never paid attention to him. Never in my life”, as he further questions T.I: “Why you don’t rap like him? You don’t talk like him, dress like him, look like him. You ain’t trying to portray none of that”. Young Thug’s claims about “not paying attention” to André 3000, and ruling out any remote influence on himself, ends up embodying the pretentiousness of younger artists who showcase their blatant ignorance to any music or art that emerged before them as a ribbon of honour. It is okay to not have heard or liked everything, yet not having not heard something isn’t cool or make you a more interesting, bold or smart person.
(pic: Atlanta Magazine)
The problem is that OutKast put “the south” on the map, opened the door to eccentricity and allowed for more wild and experimental figures, like Young Thug, in the culture of Hip-Hop/Rap. On a specific note, OutKast’s direct influence can be heard in many avenues of Hip-Hop/Rap, as André’s vocals on “E.T.” (“Me and you, your momma and your cousin too”) would later be worked into the vocal style of an artist like Kendrick Lamar. Let us also not forget the legendary verse “To the end of the week, I live by the beat // Like you live check-to-check”, that has been referenced and re-applied on a myriad of Hip-Hop/Rap albums even into the 2010s (see in playlist attached). Their studious closing track further shows us why OutKast were able to write such a significant landmark record as they took a completely alternative route to the pettiness that dominated Hip-Hop culture. They felt inspired to mould a path for themselves and any other artist who wants to be part of Hip-Hop/Rap and create music just simply for the sake of art. This album is proof that it is possible: you do not need to sell your soul, you can stand true to your ethics for what matters in your life. As a result, your music would speak to people and inspire more artists to continue to push the envelope. This is the power OutKast and André 3000 hold, as ATLiens demonstrated there is space for eccentricity in Hip-Hop/Rap, only for it to be further adopted by an Eminem, a Kanye West and especially a Young Thug, from Atlanta, Georgia.
André 3000 Legacy - https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2iPxrJe9NMWqEwmuQHcyaX