The Anniversary

ATLiens Turns 20

André Benjamin didn’t use his first verse on ATLiens, OutKast’s second album, to tell you about how great he is. Instead, he used it to tell you why he shouldn’t have to tell you how great he is. His whole verse is a tight, concise little story about some rappity-rap rapper trying to battle him and André just looking on impassively. And then, when the guy gets finished rapping at him, André offers to explain his “only child style”: “I grew up by myself, not ’round no park bench / Just a nigga busting off flows in apartments.”

It’s a startling announcement — that André, and OutKast by extension, are not going to play by regular rap rules, that they’re coming from a different place both culturally and mentally. For years, I took that as an Atlanta-vs.-New York thing: André grew up in a place where people aren’t piled up on top of each other like ants in a colony, and so he relates to people differently, which comes across in his rapping. But it’s more an admission of general outsiderdom. André didn’t grow up around people, so he doesn’t bother to relate to them through conventions and rituals like the rap battle. He doesn’t see the point. He grew up creating whole worlds inside his head, and that’s what led to the existence of the strange and thoughtful guy who we were watching as he was becoming himself.

Viewed from a certain angle, ATLiens, which turns 20 8/27, might be the greatest transitional album in rap history. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, from two years earlier, was a brash statement of intent. It was two kids from what was then a rap backwater, absolutely wrecking everyone else with speed and style and specifically regional funkiness, presenting a version of rap that the world had not yet heard. Aquemini from two years later, was the duo’s true peak. These guys had figured out who they were, how they related each other, and how far they could push their sound just before it broke, and they went about making the best possible version of that sound.

ATLiens was the midpoint of that transformation. The sound got deeper and stranger and even more specific to the people making it. Big Boi got better at shit talk; “Daddy Fat Sacks, B-I-G B-O-I be that same motherfucker that put them knuckles to your eye” is one of my all-time favorite slick asides. And André had figured out that he was not like everyone else, that he was more occupied with cosmic concerns than with standard rap shit but that he could still make those cosmic concerns sound fly. They were still putting it all together, but they were performing “still putting it together” on an impossibly high level.

And even though ATLiens captured an OutKast still on the way to what they would become, it’s an album with its own unique sonic character. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Southern rap album that sounded more mournful than ATLiens. All of the album’s tones are muted. The drums don’t slap; they tap out defeated little rhythms on the armrests in their therapists’ waiting rooms. The bass doesn’t rumble; it sadly hums old half-remembered songs that its mom used to sing it when it was home sick from school. There are melodies — absolutely beautiful melodies — but they don’t explode onto the songs. They slunk dejectedly into the living room and fling themselves into the softest chair like “you won’t believe the day I just had.” There’s hope in a song like “Babylon,” but it’s buried under layer after layer of dread and resignation. And even the party songs here — the title track, “2 Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)” — come with broken pianos and ghostly choruses of wordless sampled vocals. It’s like the Dungeon Family production braintrust took RZA’s bleak, dystopic sound palate and figured out how to turn it into actual blues music. It’s stunning, in its own exquisitely downbeat way.

A whole lot of this direction had to come from OutKast themselves, who were writing about deeper subject matter, and who were playing around a little bit with production, a thing they’d do more and more on successive albums. “Elevators (Me & U),” the album’s most-beloved song and also maybe its most smotheringly bummed-out, is one of its three Big Boi/André productions, and it sounds more like Pre-Millennial Tension-era Tricky than like anything on Southernplayalistic. The album’s sound picks up little bits and pieces from dub reggae and from the saddest extremes of old gospel music, but it picks up even more from the free-floating stress that was manifesting itself over and over in some of the best music of that mid-’90s era. You could play ATLiens back-to-back with PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love without altering your mental landscape one bit. It’s a triumph of loss.

I’ve spent my entire professional career being disgusted at anyone who would hold up a previous era over whatever’s happening in the moment, and yet I can’t listen to ATLiens without feeling a bit of that myself. That mid-’90s moment was just such a fertile time for rap music, with another world-altering work coming out at least once a month. Both members of OutKast were 19 when they released Southernplayalistic, and that’s the same age Desiigner is now. You could give Desiigner a million years, and I don’t think he’d ever make anything on the level of ATLiens. And I could say the same of Kodak Black, a young rapper who I really like. Things are just different now.

Here’s the thing about an album like ATLiens: It was not unanimously regarded as a masterpiece when it came out. If you were deep into rap, you probably knew to be excited. It got great reviews from the rap press and good reviews from the rock press, but nobody ever presented it as the earthshaking statement that it turned out to be. In the spring of 1997, when OutKast were touring behind ATLiens, Rakim was supposed to headline this big free outdoor festival at a college in Baltimore County, near me. I was excited. Rakim was a canonized rap elder, and I knew to revere him. I did not know to revere OutKast. A week or two before the show, Rakim canceled, and OutKast were the surprise last-minute replacements. I was pissed. I didn’t own ATLiens yet, wouldn’t buy it until I fell in love with Aquemini a couple of years later. I went to the show; it remains the only time I’ve ever seen OutKast live. They were OK. I remember them being mad at their mics being shitty more than I remember any of the songs they’d done. I’m pretty sure I left early.

Now: This is partly my fault, for only being deep into bands who either wore mohawks or checkerboard Vans. It’s partly the fault of the music press that failed to adequately hype me up for a group like this. But it’s partly the era, too. There was so much great rap music coming out that motherfucking ATLiens could go relatively unheralded. That’s amazing. (People did hear it; it was platinum by the end of the year. It’s one example, among so many, of how the people were ahead of the critical establishment. I was already thinking like a baby critic at 16, which was my own problem.)

At this point, at least among people who are not New Yorkers with AARP cards, OutKast are way more revered than Rakim. A lot of things had to happen to get them to that point. They had to finish up the single greatest three-album run in rap history with Aquemini. They had to go weird. They had to go pop while going weird. Rap’s regional biases had to erode to the point where Atlanta supplanted New York as its capital. If those hadn’t happened, ATLiens might still be a semi-lost classic — sort of like Cool Breeze’s East Point’s Greatest Hits or Witchdoctor’s …A S.W.A.T. Healing Ritual, two albums that came out of the Dungeon Family crew not long after ATLiens.

It makes me wonder: What great things are happening right now that we’re not understanding? Are there albums that critics like me are ignoring, albums that will be remembered 20 years from now the way we remember ATLiens today? As a music critic, these are the questions that keep me up at night. But at least we now can remember ATLiens the right way. Sometimes, it takes time for us to understand the kid who doesn’t battle, who instead explains to us why he thinks battling is dumb. Sometimes, the emergence of one weird kid leads to the empowerment of a whole lot more. That might be André Benjamin’s greatest legacy. If he’d never had the awakening that he hints at on ATLiens, rap would be in a very different place.