If you’re a fan of hip hop, or good music in general, you’ve most definitely heard of the famous duo known as Outkast. Consisting of the 2 rappers Big Boi and Andre 3000, this duo formed in 1991 in Atlanta Georgia. A lot of young people of today grew up listening to Outkast albums or went back and listened to them after the fact. Even if you’ve never heard an Outkast album, you’ve probably heard the 2 rappers at some point. Big Boi is still active and continues to release albums and while Andre 3000 is a little more dormant, you can still find him on features for iconic artists such as Beyonce, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean. Even if you’ve honestly never heard Andre 3000 or Big Boi’s voice on a song, you’ve still heard them. You might ask how, and the answer is through their influence on artists. Some of the biggest hip hop artists of today continue to draw their inspiration from the incredible albums Outkast has dropped. When you listen to Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and Schoolboy Q rap or sing, you can hear the influence of Andre 3000 and Big Boi and how these newer artists have made this style their own. The style and unique culture surrounding this type of hip hop was paved by Outkast and in this article I’d like to talk about Outkast’s influence, specifically through one particular album, one of my favorites: ATLiens.
This album comes out a few years after Outkast’s debut album, southernplayalisticaddilacmuzik. This debut album is an important moment in Outkast’s discography however it was saturated with a lot of sounds that were very trendy at the time in early 90’s hip hop. There was a very big g-funk influence on the album coming from the west coast. It was clear that Andre 3000 and Big Boi and their producers were very heavily influenced and inspired by artists like Dr. Dre. At this point with this 1st project, Outkast was still developing their sound, and so was the rest of the south at the time. A lot of hip hop at this time was dominated by the east coast vs. west coast debate. Which sound was better, and which sound was more popular? This left a lot of the South and Midwest (Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, etc.) in a bit of an identity crisis as artists from these areas were trying to take what they knew from popular hip hop on each side of the country and make it into their own unique style. It wasn’t until later with artists like Three 6 Mafia that Southern Hip Hop began to truly find it’s own sound and style. The album ATLiens is a clear deviation point, a landmark moment, for southern hip hop and for Outkast. While this album doesn’t have as many hits as Aquemini for example, this is the album where Andre 3000 and Big Boi come into their own.
Working with their producers, Outkast released an album that was completely different from the wave of aggressive hip hop coming from the east coast and the west coast, and also kept their very smooth and melodic sound from their debut album. These smooth grooves and sweet melodies from their debut album were brought into ATLiens with a very moody, laidback, nocturnal, almost mystical direction. Most of ATLiens as an album consists of simple percussion, subtle guitars and keys, and almost subconsciously groovy bass-lines. Outkast’s contribution to this was their thoughtful and clever lyrics to top it all off. Andre 300o and Big Boi also noticeably improve and change up their flows consistently on this album. That’s part of what makes this album work so well. Despite how quiet the beats may be, Andre and Big Boi are such massive personalities that their animated and emotional rapping takes center stage.
The 1st official track not counting the intro, “Two Dope Boyz,” is essentially Outkast’s mission statement for them as artists. The hook talks about how a lot of people around Big Boi and Andre are engaging in destructive behavior. What’s important here is that Outkast says on this hook that “in the middle we stay calm, we just drop bombs.” At this point, a lot of the aggression that was normal at the time in hip hop seemed a little tired and cliche for Outkast. Andre 3000 and Big Boi both talk about how they are above “petty confrontation” on this album. It’s clear with how philosophical Andre gets, that he very much cares about what he says. He feels a great responsibility with the way he lets words out and doesn’t want to take anyone in the wrong direction. Big Boi uses his verses as a way to be more straightforward and funny. These 2 personalities compliment each other very well on each track.
The singing on the song “Elevators” is something that you can hear now listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s early albums and even some of his more recent ones. It’s moments like this on ATLiens where you can see how this album has clearly influenced the artists of today. The chorus on this song is incredibly subdued. This is not a punchy or catchy hook, this is an easygoing hook for an easygoing song for an easygoing album. It’s crazy to think that, despite how easygoing the song “Elevators” is, it was a lead single off of this album and even made it up to #12 on the Billboard charts when it dropped.
There are songs where Outkast talks about the music industry, like on the song “Mainstream,” and there are also songs like “Jazzy Belle” where Big Boi and Andre talk about the politics of sex. There are also a lot of cuts where the 2 rappers get incredibly personal like the track “Babylon.” On this track Big Boi talks about losing his aunt and how important she was to him while Andre talks about his exposure to cocaine at a very young age. There are so many emotional and real moments all over ATLiens that it would be a waste of time to count them all. Big Boi and Andre are always very clearly putting a lot of thought into what they’re saying and that shines through. That’s what makes this album so great.
While there are points where I wish ATLiens was a little punchier and a little more hard hitting, it’s very clear that this was a conscious choice from Outkast in order to dodge all of the aggressive hip hop that was coming out at the time. This is part of the reason why this album is so heavily influential to the modern artists who like to make abstract, laid back, jazzy hip hop such as Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, and a lot of alternative rap such as Open Mike Eagle. On later songs and albums Outkast continued to master their sound. There are tracks where you can hear Big Boi rap about how he just wants to blow bubbles with his daughter. This is what makes Outkast so influential. They created landmark influential iconic music while simultaneously dodging the pettiness and “beef” that surrounds a lot of hip hop culture. They created an outlet and another “lane” for other artists who want to follow in their footsteps. In a time when your only options were west coast and east coast and all of it was surrounded with aggression, Outkast created a 3rd path for artists to take, a path that many artists today still take. Outkast shows us that you don’t have to sell your soul to what’s mainstream and trendy in order to make music that speaks to people and sounds great, and ATLiens is proof of that.