In 1994, OutKast dropped their debut album, southernplaylisticadillacmuzic, an album that served as a springboard for Andre (soon to be 3000) and Big Boi, but that was also an introduction to the enormous talent of the whole Dungeon Family collective.
Organized Noize (Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown, Ray Murray) produced the entire project, which was put together in Rico’s grandma’s clammy basement in East Point, Georgia, now famously known as The Dungeon. The entire DF crew was there; including key players Khujo, Big Gipp, Cee-Lo, and T-Mo of Goodie MOB, solo rappers Cool Breeze and Witchdoctor, as well as famed singer-songwriter Joi—floating ideas about hooks and verses and pushing one another to be better. The end result was a hodgepodge of sound: funkadelic soul drenched in dirty southern bathwater. Yes, it was technically OutKast’s debut, but southernplayalistic... was, in effect, a group effort. And more specifically, the album marked the arrival of Organized Noize as one of the most innovative production crews Hip-Hop has birthed.
Fast forward two years, to August 1996, when OutKast dropped their heavily anticipated sophomore album, ATLiens. From the moment the album opened with the hauntingly serene “You May Die (Intro)” it was obvious this wasn’t just an extension of southernplayalistic...’s sound. It was something more—something else. If the album’s comic book-inspired, futuristic cover art didn’t vividly announce the new direction Big and Dre were veering towards, the music certainly did.
Big Boi and Andre, who'd energetically announced their arrival on southernplayalistic... staples like “Crumblin’ Erb,” “Aint No Thang,” “Player’s Ball,” and “Git Up, Git Out,” had morphed into deeper, more defined versions of themselves.
They’d always been mature—despite being just teens on their debut and barely in their 20s on ATLiens—but the growth between their first and second albums was glaringly obvious. It was almost like we were really meeting them for the first time.
The changes in Dre and Big were spurred by their individual life circumstances. Andre gave up alcohol, became vegan, earned his GED, and began pondering about everything from literal UFOs, to his personal insights about himself and the way he relates to people and his environment, themes he’d continue to touch on throughout the rest of his career. You can hear him drift off into his outerspace-like perception and reflections on the nuances of life on songs like “Elevators,” which features one of his most quotable verses to this day and became one of OutKast’s signature songs, and space age-country “ATLiens.”
Meanwhile, Big Boi had just become father, and was dealing with the tragic loss of his aunt Renee, who'd helped raise him. He too, was exploring what it meant to be a man, and how his environment shaped him, building on those ideas through his avant-garde street lyricism; as witnessed on tracks like the dirty spiritual “Babylon” and the gutter-bluesy “Decatur Psalm.”
The personal changes the pair were experiencing are apparent throughout the entirety of ATLiens. But to put it simply: Andre and Big grew up, as men and as artists. They stretched themselves and their sound, honing in on the energy that made southernplayalistic... so great while expanding on it.
If southernplaylstic...was Organized Noize and the Dungeon Family’s coming-out party, ATLiens was OutKast’s.
Stylistically, lyrically, and musically, it’s obvious that OutKast themselves are firmly in the driver’s seat for the duration of the album; and as a result, their second project feels like the first time we actually meet the versions of Big and Dre that would come to define the groundbreaking duo. In that way, ATLiens plays like their true debut.
While Organized still produced most of ATLiens, including notable tracks like “Mainstream,” “Babylon,” and “Decatur Psalm,” OutKast had learned from Ray, Sleepy, and Rico, and began making beats themselves. They ended up producing five of the album’s most defining songs— “Wheelz of Steel,” “Elevators (Me & You),”Ova da Wudz,” “E.T. (Extraterrestrial)” and “ATLiens.” It was a glimpse into the direction the duo would subsequently take, when they produced almost the entirety of their third (and arguably best) album, 1998’s Aquemini. By the early 2000s, Big Boi, Andre and longtime collaborator Mr. DJ would form the production team of Earthtone III, eventually handling much of the production on latter OutKast albums like Stankonia.
Both Dre and Big were looking to the future, and you can hear it weaved throughout the album, as it dips heavily into Afro-futuristic themes without ever losing its down home appeal. Throughout the 14-track album, ATLiens sounds definitively theirs. It’s not just one of the best sophomore albums rap has ever produced, but it’s a vivid, sharply-shaped introduction to one of the best groups of all-time.