The title of OutKast’s second album suggests that the Atlantabased rap duo is spaced out on a P-Funk-style otherworldly trip. But ATLiens, like its platinum predecessor, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, is a gritty document of what’s happening here and now, an up-to-the-minute briefing on Southern black ghetto life on which OutKast members Andre and Big Boi cast their feelings of alienation in familiar, realistic characterizations: jealous homeboys at the mall, conniving women, evil record-industry execs and those high-minded folks who view the successful pair merely as a couple of dangerous young black men.
The bluesy hit single “Elevators (Me and You)” showcases OutKast’s verbal dexterity with a catchy hook propelled by sharp percussion licks — “Me and you, your momma and your cousin, too/Rollin’ down the strip on vogues/Comin’ up slammin’ Cadillac doors” — while Andre and Big Boi trade tales of the envy and paranoia that inevitably accompany showbiz success. “Decatur Psalm,” a slinky funk groove reminiscent of a ’70s blaxploitation-flick score, is OutKast’s state-of-the-black-community address on poverty, education, crime and black-on-black violence, a discourse intensified by a haunting vocal chorus. Against melancholic piano chords and sugary singing in the meditative “13th Floor/Growing Old,” OutKast weave elements of Southern black folklore, ghetto gamesmanship and biblical teaching into a potent manifesto that echoes the crucial lesson in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “No one is free when others are oppressed.”
What distinguishes this record from the materialistic hedonism of much East Coast rap, and the gunplay and pimpism of its West Coast counterpart, is more than OutKast’s Southern roots. On ATLiens — produced by the duo and Organized Noize (the crew responsible for TLC’s chart-topping “Waterfalls”) — Andre and Big Boi display a unique ability to describe ghetto life while offering up life-affirming possibilities, something all too rare in today’s hip-hop nation.