In this second installment of the Classic Sounds review library, I want to focus on an album that’s heralded as a classic, but possibly not for the right reasons…
This album is one that is and was critically acclaimed, and cemented by many fans, southern rap heads, and of course Georgia natives as the foundation, but rarely mentioned.
You don’t hear much about the fact that all 3 videos from this LP actually all lead into each other. Or, the dope comic book that came with the CD. Nor, that the first song on this album gave birth to the name and tagline of one of the most popular Hip-Hop blogsites out right now.
In my mid 90′s quest for something new and fresh and deviating from the Champagne drenched, Italiano/player/mack syndrome that had just flooded hip-hop, I stumbled across this under-appreciated body of work and got a taste of what I wasn’t ready for. This album which went over the heads of many, actually hit mine directly and blew my mind.
But it wasn’t an initial blow (PAUSE). Much like the fledging public, I didn’t quite appreciate nor understand the genius of ‘Twan and Dre at the arrival the ATLiens.
Here I was: the kid with his finger on the record & pause buttons of the stereo. Master of the straight from radio to cassette mixes. There was a radio segment that used to come on at primetime called the “Battle of The Beats” (back when programmers were at least trying to pretend to attempt to care about breaking new music in). And sure, you may have heard of other battle of the beats segments in your region, but this was uber important because this was New York’s battle of the beats. And us being notorious for not being open to newness makes it even more significant when you consider that this was during the period of the much over-hyped East Coast/West Coast beef where every area inbetween fell in the shuffle and if it wasn’t immediate northeastern state hip-hop, it landed in the westside or “other” box. So more than ever before, this segment of programming was used to show that we can play fair, and introduce the New York audience to rap from outside their immediate (and close-minded) scope.
One of these such purveyors of outside hip-hop on one faithful night happened to be Outkast.
Now I had a leg up on the general demographic of NYers who mostly at that point didn’t know the first thing about them. Truth is, I secretly hated Outkast but was a closet fan because I was familiar with them and their music from my previous 2 visits to The ATL area. I first got tuned into Kast between 94 and 96 when I was visiting my family and heard a song they did off of the New Jersey Drive soundtrack (ironic) entitled “Benz Or Bimaz”. I thought it was Das Efx at first due to the pace of the rapping and the fact that I hadn’t been exposed to ANY real variety of hip-hop region wise. But that summer was about to hit me like a ton of bricks as my cousins prepared me for the slew of southern hits that were about to smack me in my face in my time down there. See at that time, since everyone was picking sides and aligning with whatever coast, Atlanta radio favored California hip-hop and anything leaning from south to southwest. So you better believe I got my fair dose of “Po’ Pimp”, “Bout it, Bout it”, and other noteworthies from Scarface, Too Short, Mystikal and The Luniz. So once I realized how slanted things were going with this type of music that was so foreign to me, I built up a disdain for the simplified lyrics, R&B sounding beats and funny twangs. I wanted my New York Mobb Deep and Nas gritty narratives full of words I didn’t understand!
And NONE of this helped when it was revealed to me that the group behind the ONE song that I took a liking to on that radio was made by OutKast. Not THOSE guys!! As soon as I heard that, I stopped liking the song. I distincly remember seeing them previously while we were watching the first ever SOURCE Awards in Atlanta, and they won best new artist or best new group over a bunch of people who I knew and felt as though should have won. They came up and Dre was wearing a dashiki and sounding so angry as he accepted the award talking about “the south got something to say!”. My reaction was, ‘who the fuck are you??!’ Of course I knew who they were…I saw their “Players Ball” video at some point the year before, but I just thought that was just some of that bammafied country shit from some local niggas from them gated communities that me and my cousins used to be at in Stone Mountain and Decatur.
You can see why hearing these guys on my New York station at this point was a mixture of foresight and reluctant acceptance for me…
The song being premiered was “Elevators“. I don’t even remember what song it was put up against in the battle of the beats. All I remember is wanting the Outkast song to win. And it did. I never heard anything like it. It was a deep groove that sounded like driving down the ATL backroads, but had a boom bap to it like it was spawned in the Bronx along with all my New York hip-hop. The lyrics were Crazy, yet and still the hook and the accents wouldn’t let you forget it was southern.
By the time the video for the song came out, I was sold. But not enough to call myself buying a whole album of theirs. Leaving Middle school that summer, my boy Errol had bought ATLiens and kept going on and on about this song called “Wheels of Steel”. So I went to my local Mom and Pop record store (yeah, we used to do that), Rainbow Music on 125th street, where they had listening stations for new or popular CDs and gave it a go. I didn’t know what I was in for. The beats were nothing like the stuff I heard in Atlanta. I was expecting wah-wah guitars and funky worm synths with double-time drums, what I got was moody crunk and dj scratches on melodious backdrops.
Somehow I ended up borrowing Errol’s tape (Yeah, tape) and held it down for a few days before deciding to go buy it. I still didn’t jump right out and get the album because as you have and will see, I had other purchases to make that satisfied my more immediate New York hip-hop needs and wants. But I eventually copped it and it stayed in rotation in my tape deck until College came around.
Now I realize that Aquemini is the Starting point for many Outkast fans. I get it. It’s the media darling, I was there on the train that morning when it seemed like everyone was reading The Source and saw how it got a 5 Mic rating. I couldn’t believe I was even alive to bear witness to a 5 mic rating in my time. That’s how important The Source used to be. They were behind my inclination to check out ATLiens as well because I saw it get a 4 mic rating next to Ghostface’s album which was unheard of. I was thinking like, if their album is comparable to his, then I gotta do what the rating says and at least check it out. *Sigh*, young impressionable hip-hop fans… Their rating pointed at the dj scratches, the hooks, the feeling, the represntation of Atlanta and a new voice for southern rap in general. They review had a tone of ‘nice try guys, come back harder next year and maybe you’ll have a hit on your hands’. Little did they know…
But what the review didn’t touch on, and what most reviews of ATLiens don’t, is the seriousness of this classic. The artistry of it and it’s cultural significance to hip-hop history is crucial and unmatched, making it even more important than Aquemini. There’s 3 angles here that this album needs to be taken from:
This is the sophmore album, coming off platinum success, a 4.5 mic rating in The Source as well as a Source award, and establishing a name as Atlanta flag carriers and wavers, making a mark for southern hip-hop with content. This is also after the point where the Dungeon Family of producers and rappers were cementing their name and kast opened the gate for the second group, Goodie Mob, to become local legends and an equally respected southern group in the hip-hop world. Everyone was clicking up in the mid to late 90′s. This was the age of Clans, posses, crew, cliks, and families. To see the solidarity between such a large collective of multi-talented artists from a then untapped region was revolutionary. This was a milestone period. This wasn’t the Atlanta that we know it to be in the last 10 years where half of the hip-hop population is from or lives there. This was when Kast and Goodie stood alone on a national level amongst some local hometown stars and put the world on to how the new black mecca was the place to be. Right when Blacks heeded this and flooded the city for the job oppurtunities, Cheap property, warm weather, or simply to catch Freaknik before it officially died. I remember after visiting Atlanta again after the album dropped and these guys being such a name out there that they were playing album cuts on regular radio rotation like they were singles. I remember asking my cousins to turn Up “2DopeBoyz” as it played after some ’96 summer hit. They planted the seeds in the soil to the point that every last Atlanta artist that followed showed and continues to show them respect in a way that no other group gets recognized in any other region. N.W.A. to Cali would be the only other close example I could think of, and even they don’t get as much love across the board. In Atlanta, kast is king. Point blank.
But this was that time. And to make it even more significant, the whole crew had so many members who each had different talents, and none of them sounded the same. This was the perfect set up for Dre to start expressing some of that, as this album marks the first glimpse we get to see of the artist then known as Benjamin or just Andre, departing from the norm and doing his eccentric thing. He’d began littering his fashion and verses with more spiritually influenced nuances. This had the effect of distancing him from Boi not by isolating himself like he would do in later years, but more like standing out so you wouldn’t limp them together as one indistinguishable group, as people tend to do when a duo isn’t that dynamically structured or the members don’t bring anything to the table that’s super memorable personality wise.
He secured the group from ever facing that kind of labeling or scrutiny for sure. No more would you not be able to tell them apart by who had the fro and who had the braids, or who had the darker Braves Jersey on. No. Now it was getting to a point where folk were saying that Dre was light years beyond Big Boi as a rapper. This doesn’t sound any better when you take into account that in recent years, both Dre and Cee-lo have revealed that during that time Dre was sharing writing duties with Boi, due to whatever it may have been…boi being too busy in the trap, too high, or just not motivated enough. Or maybe Boi came to Dre and asked him to finish verses fro him because he himself thought of Dre as the better rapper. Who Knows? He surely wasn’t ghostwriting for Boi. But here you can hear it, because I fear without Dre’s influence, the disparity between the 2 rappers style and content would have been more evident and obvious like it was on Aquemini, and the overall theme and tone of ATLiens would have been compromised.
Here, the boys sound like they are cut from the same exact cloth, bobbing and weaving through flows and topics. But yet and still the difference is still there. As it should be.
The beginnings of this difference can be seen in something as minute as Dre’s wearing a turban in the “Elevators” video.
This is also the album where both members emerged as producers. While the Dungeon Family beatsmiths and masters of evocative music, Organized Noize, have been behind most of Outkast’s biggest hits, the production team they formed themselves, Earthtone 3 took the reigns here. I’m usually a fan of when Outkast lets Organized Noize do their thing and falls back on production because I’ve seen the mess they can make when they take too much of the load (Stankonia anyone?). But they were responsible for half of the production on this album, including the hits. Which leads us to looking at things
The music, yeah, let’s say music on this album was unexpected, unrivaled, and unprecedented. Not only were some of the directions taken on here unheard of for southern hip-hop, it was unheard of for all hip-hop. To this day, I’ve never heard some of these sounds utilized the same ways. Maybe they were really trying to capture the whole otherworldy vibe to play into the whole aliens thing, but the ethereal soundscapes took you elsewhere as you listened. Every track fell in beautifully with each other as it had some unidentifiable quality that tied it all together, but was so different from the next or previous track in huge ways. There’s no repeats here. No other percussion sounds that hit like sticks against fences the way “Elevators” did. No other deep, ominous piano chords like the ones on “13th floor/growing old”. Sampled voices, almost Gregorian chants and operatic harmonizing in the backgrounds made up some of the beats, while others incorporated futuristics synths and ambient effects. I do think in the end tho, it’s the vague voices you hear inside of the beats that bring that life out there and makes it feel like the album itself is the third member of the group. What’s crazy is that in the midst of all of this eclecticism, it’s still undeniably hip-hop. The drums remind you of that everytime. As well as the flows. Let’s speak on that for a minute…
What can I say? have you heard this album??? No wonder people started adding Dre to their lists of greatest MC’s. We never saw his wave coming. Some of the stuff talked on in this album has never quite been said the same way, if said again at all. The boys have a way with words, mixing southern folk talk and ’round the way slang with sprinkles of SAT vocabulary. The expletives here serve purpose and aren’t just for randomness’ sake. You feel the profundity each time someone cusses on this joint. They teetered on gangsta consciousness, a move Dre later said was intentional, touching on social awareness issues while spreading a do what you do and learn later ethos. It was the perfect balance of braggadocio and introspection. But what makes this album pop is that their kind of introspection moved you to do your own self reflection. Something about the southern wisdom in these 2 super young dudes (they were like 21 back then) was apart of the draw. Their warnings were like the old southern grandma that tells you not to mess with something and you do it anyway and get hurt and her response is like ‘I tried to told ya’. The depth here is immense. They touch on issues of over-saturation of commercial styling in hip-hop as well as lack of creativity. They lament on the impending loom of maturity, the plight of the ignorant negro and the state of black women and their changing roles in society from mothers to objects. The most important and dominant theme on this project is the boys place in the rap game, if not life, hence the whole aliens thing. They felt the pressure of holding their city on their backs and bringing the flyness and culture of it to the forefront, but they were aware of not exactly fitting into the neatly tucked boxes set up by the hip-world at the time.
It’s moments like on “Babylon” where Dre hits you in the head off the break with heavy shit, that you realize that the boys were waaaaaayyyy ahead of their time tho. He got the hip-hop quotable in The Source that year for his second verse off of this song, but I was always a bigger fan of the first because before the beat drops he starts off like
“I came into this world high as a bird,
from second-hand cocaine powder – I know it sounds absurd,
I never chewed it but it’s in my veins while the,
rest of the country bungies off bridges, without no snapback and bitches,
they say they need that to shake they fannies in thee,
They go the other route, turn each other out, burn each other out,
where they goin’ a fine nigga like me can’t even get a backrub these days…
ain’t that bleak on their part?
But let me hold it down, cause they shut you down when you speak from your heart.
Now thats hard!
while we rantin’ and ravin’ about gats,
Nigga they made them gats! they got some shit that’ll blow out our back!
From where they stay at!”
And while Big Boi’s verses tended to lean more towards being street and pimpish, when he was on, he was on. His brief deviaition from topic was never one of non-focus that took away from the discussion at hand, just a reminder that he was different from his counterpart. The same way Dre began defining himself and standing out, so did mr. Daddy Fat Sax by reminding you were he came from and which elements he was comprised of. He has one of my favorite verses on the album on “Decatur Psalm”, a track that doesn’t feature dre at all, but has other Dungeon Family members CoolBreeze and Big Gipp with background from Cee-Lo. It’s one of those moments where even if you can’t relate, you feel him and agree.
“Can you see what I be hearing?
talking to spirits when I sleep,
peep this out real quick-slick,
we gets on this beat.
Speak about that pimp shit, that walk-with-a-limp shit, hemp shit,
looking up in your grill I see a coward and a dimwit.”
And then further in the verse he concludes by saying
“I need to take my ass to the crib and drop the baby off,
cause them niggas at the corner store been looking at me for too long
-staring like accidents on highways,
high days are better than sobre ones,
- don’t need violence, but I know it’s bound to come.
So I put 2 in this guy to let ‘em know I’m babysitting,
ya’ll don’t nothin’ bout BIg Boi cause that nigga steady pimpin’!”
Nuff said. It sounds even doper when you listen to the way in which it’s said.
So as I mentioned before, here are the 3 videos that were actually the singles from the album, making Outkast one of the ONLY groups I can think of, who made videos that ended with “to be continued” and actually picked up where the last one left off. Personally I hate the Video version of “JazzyBelle” with Babyface singing on it and a more r&b stylized beat to it, but the video is worth checking out just for the sake of completing the trilogy. Peep the Ancient Egyptian inspired imagery that blends in with the whole much talked about alien connection…
One of the GReatest Hip-Hop videos of all time.
And just because I don’t like the Babyface version (I guess they wanted to rock with each other at least once since they were on La Face records) that much, I’m including the original “JazzyBelle”.
And my Other Favorite “E.T.”
Really this whole album doesn’t have one weak song. The track “Ova Da Wudz” has a weak hook, but you can blame Witchdoctor for that. And even after you hear it a few times, you get used to it’s unorthodoxy and start loving it.
Encompassing all elements of a True Classic album, having commercial appeal while not sacrificing depth or innovation, and also having such chronological significance, I give ATLiens the highest rating I could possibly give a classic, 16 Candles.
And with that, I urge you to re-listen to it if you call yourself an Outkast fan or a hip-hop fan, or listen for the first time if you never have…