The South had something to say: When ATLiens dropped, the game was never the same again
The 1995 Source Awards are infamous for the strife that was in the air. Snoop was wondering where the love was for him and Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight was unloading a historic speech about executives not knowing their place. It was an example of how divided rap was at the time. New Yorkers were cold like the weather. Southern rap duo Outkast was also in the building dealing with their own public controversy. Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin had won “Best Newcomer” at the show but got a rude awakening when they came to accept the award: The crowd was booing them. Loudly. Andre 3000, in a purple and tribal-print outfit that looks like the original version of an ASOS knockoff, said something pertinent: “The South got somethin’ to say.” It calmed down the crowd as if the mood changed to, “Okay, we’ll see.”
People make it out to be something that was a bit more sinister than it truly was. It wasn’t personal. New Yorkers were the people that birthed the genre and they had every right to be pretentious and tribal over it. That was just the way it was. Still, it wasn’t fair to Outkast. Andre and Big Boi were excellent on Southernplayalisticallidacmusik and the boom bap world didn’t know it. It’s a great debut album as evident by how it developed new slang, had fashion choices that people still remember today, and Andre sounded like he was born to rap on it.
It wasn’t Ready To Die or Illmatic. It was a ride through the East Point section of Atlanta. It was Braves jerseys and earnest calls to avoid drugs and chase dreams. Outkast was dope then and it would only continue. It is interesting to consider Outkast as overlooked then because they really aren’t now. Outkast is a lot of people’s choice for the degrading sentence “I don’t listen to rap much but ___.” “Ms. Jackson is sung at birthday parties with no mention of “Gasoline Dream.” “International Players Anthem” might be the most universally beloved hip-hop song there’s ever been, but the people who hold it in such high regard have never sat with UGK’s Super Tight or Outkast’s best album, ATLiens.
ATLiens isn’t a drastic change in mood from Outkast’s debut on the surface, but where they were young bucks on the debut trying to let people in on life in the South, here they have a much wider scope. They seem to be talking about life as a whole.
The production, album title, and album cover give the album a feeling of the outer world. Outkast came from Atlanta but that may as well be a different planet. “Two Dope Boyz” opens with a voice that is an outtake from Spielberg. Andre speaks about growing up by himself. He wasn’t born in New York, where the freestyle in your neighborhood is common, because everyone is around one another. There isn’t any space to yourself in New York. Andre grew up in Georgia. He honed his skills in his room alone. That is Andre’s shtick throughout his career: He stands alone in who he is. No one can put him in a box. This is the same mentality that led him to say “The South got somethin’ to say” and later go on to become one of the most recognizable pop artists in the world.
Their sound is more stranger and enigmatic as it ever would be. If the next album, Aquemini, is their first real attempt to make a masterpiece, this album is transitioning to that. Sometimes Outkast gets a reputation for making rap that is clean and always has content that “matters,” a backhanded compliment that tries to devalue every form of rap music. That isn’t true though. “ATLiens” shows that Big Boi and Andre could talk shit as well as anyone. It may be done with more finesse than most rap brutes have, but they’re quick to tell you how nasty they are on the mic too. “And when I’m on the microphone you best to wear your sweater ‘cause I’m cooler than a polar bear’s toenails,” Big Boi says on the title track.
“Babylon” has Big Boi reminiscing about his childhood and Andre lamenting the world he lives in: “While we ranting and raving about gats, n***a they made them gats they got some shit that will blow out our backs.” This is the Deep South. Not that the South is more racist than any place in America — it isn’t — but they grew up seeing Confederate flags. They grew up seeing politicians openly antagonize Black people.
Consensus would have it that Andre 3000 was the genius in the duo and Big Boi was a great complementary player, but that isn’t true at all. Andre is the better technical and definitely can reach a rapping level that is hard for anyone to match, not just Big Boi, but look deeper and you’ll see that Big Boi is just as effective and madcap as Andre. First off, Big Boi has a more rich sense of humor.
My favorite Outkast songs were always when he was able to say something amusing that balanced Andre’s poetic earnestness. They are a duo. Every Outkast album is a celebration of both of them: Andre’s sex positive raps, Big Boi’s Dolemite-esque character, Andre’s melodic freak-outs, and Big Boi’s braggadocio. They both love Black people and discuss problems within the community while never losing sight that white supremacy is the reason why we have those problems.
It is a combination of both of them that made them original and never to be duplicated. ATLiens is the peak of that; when they made their best pure rap music while still standing out from the rest of the game. When Big Boi caught up to Andre’s natural, born to rap genius. The game would never be the same again.
Jayson Buford is a lifelong rap fan and New York based music writer who writes for Passion of the Weiss and others. He co-hosts New Music Tuesdays on the Spotify room app every Tuesday. He misses sitting up top at Madison Square Garden.