On OutKast’s landmark sophomore album, ATLiens and the transformation period of André 3000 & Big Boi.

There’s a leap of dismissiveness from André 3000 between albums one and two. It’s not as vulgar and misogynistic as him hanging up on a woman who proclaimed she was pregnant by him, nor is it a tone of boyish glee when he wants to shoot pool in the Dungeon as opposed to passing at Tri-Cities High. At 20, Dre’s already sipped the nectar of fame and been brushed back by regional ignorance. “I grew up to myself not round no park bench / just a n*gga bustin flows off in apartments,” he raps in a calculated piece of prose. Less than a year after declaring his home had something to say, he wasn’t interesting in playing by traditional rules of saying something.

Longtime OutKast fans will tell you that the jump between Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik and ATLiens is like a unheralded phenom hitting the league and putting up buckets. From a content perspective, it’s the transition from teenagers to adulthood. Two years prior, Big Boi & André rapped with a cocksure swagger to them. They wanted girls, they wanted money, they wanted Atlanta to glisten and shine how New York and Los Angeles did, yet not exactly like LA & NY. Organized Noize made SPCM sound and feel like Atlanta of 1994; the bubbling monster of horns, Southern fried roots and drums that was only being fed to destroy and ultimately conquer all. By 1996, the three man crew allowed OutKast to add to the template, crafting something that lived up to the album’s title.

The spaghetti guitar licks merged with DJ scratches to craft “Wheelz Of Steel” was their idea of marrying their spacial ideas with traditionalism. Two tracks later, the self-produced “Elevators (Me & U)” kicks in with a faucet drip of a drum pattern and moody guitars underneath. It’s Louisiana funeral procession music, celebratory in small pockets but overall bleak as hell. “Putting the South up on the map was like Little Rock to banging” is analogy that sticks like a timestamp. Today, Little Rock, AK is only a blip on the national conscious when it comes to gang violence. Two decades ago it was a hot bed for HBO documentaries and police tape. Which kind of plays into how timeless OutKast has become. Even their most forgetful of lines end up becoming celebrated and beloved.

Of the four OutKast albums released between 1994 and 2000, ATLiens stands as the initial shift between the two Georgia boys and every other rap act out. Establishing who they were as men was the first thing. Big Boi was always a gifted lyricist, a man born to rap and talk shit. André started starring into the cosmos and began discussing how a man could get pushed so far to almost sell his soul. There’s moments when he’s starring at black and yellow pavement discussing how money still made him broke (“Got stopped at the mall the other day…”) and others when he’s looking outside of his body as a child. Combine that with ONP’s will to create the bleakest, most dystopian view of Atlanta rap ever and you get two outsiders with a call to arms.

This week alone, André’s name came into question again on two fronts. One was a speed rap discussion of who writes what in rap on Frank Ocean’s Blond album. The other was looking at a modern ATLien in Jeffrey (né Young Thug) who appeared on his latest album cover sporting an outfit that was Vera Wang meets Raiden from Mortal Kombat. Fans proclaimed that due to skill and skill alone, André was allowed to dress as freely as he wanted to compared to Thug. The loathsome and quizzical André Benjamin was questioning his own satisfaction with this very genre two decades ago, unaware of whether integrity truly mattered: “Take this music dead serious while others entertain, I see they makin they paper so I guess I can’t complain… or can I?, I feel they disrespectin’ the whole thang…” he said on “13th Floor/Growing Old”. Money never made him, even as a 21-year-old just discovering his own universe.

ATLiens didn’t obtain its classic status until years later, when Aquemini officially made OutKast stars. But Big Boi and André dabbled in so many different diasporas on their sophomore effort, you got excited for what they could create next. On “Babylon”, the album’s mid-point and most gospel of all records, Dre discusses childlike curiosity with sexuality a mere verse after realizing standing for something and believing it is far harder in execution than theory. He knows war with a larger body is not the way: “nigga they made them gats, they got some shit to blow out our back, from where they stay at”. It’s a line that stands in limbo, effective to be believed in 1996 as much as it is in 2016. Citizens fighting the state sanctioned arm of the government only ends in death of citizens. All of it this gets underscored by “Babylon”’s chorus. Life is a battle, holding on to faith and God for salvation and change is all we’ve been singing and wishing for. Nothing changes in the eyes of Big Boi and André. The people who run the same streets Big Boi could put knuckles in your eye. As honest as the two men could be, they probably never saw the influence they’d leave on countless individuals across the country.

Two self-professed weirdos, growing up and walking in step to create something no one else could dare duplicate.

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