Thursday, April 23, 2009

ATLienated: How Outkast's Second Album Changed Hip Hop

What follows is not a defense.

There are artists, albums, moments in Hip Hop in which a kind of truth is stumbled upon that changes everything. Sometimes these moments are glaring and obvious, Paid In Full, Raising Hell, “Fight the Power”, Midnight Marauders, Illmatic, “Nothin But a G Thang”, Enter the 36 Chambers, “Things Done Changed”. And sometimes, it isn’t immediately apparent that things have changed at all, that the rules were subtly bent and the parameters expanded until later. When considering this emerging generation of MCs several concepts and themes stand out that appear somewhat novel and perhaps detestable to the status quo. They are concerned with less grandiose and fantastical subject matter, self obsessed in ways not seen before, rather than concern themselves with myth building the album serves as quite the opposite, their therapist’s sofa, examining insecurities, reliving their great moments and looking for meaning in the dark. A search that has turned inwards. There is little room for taboo or shame, much of their reference, their punchlines, their choruses stand as a challenge to standard Hip Hop group-think. They dare an audience to call them un-cool and question credibility they’d never claim, attacking a history of posturing in ways many critics find are to their own detriment, the very antithesis of the “essence” of Hip Hop itself.

What is Hipster Rap and where did it come from? The easy way out is to pin the tail on the mincing faggot raps of mid 90s, underground emo practiced by white boys from Minnesota. Bleary eyed beta males mourning their mother’s unwillingness to show affection and pining for ex-girlfriends in spoken word put to drum and bass. Maybe it’s a major label creation, crass commercialization marketing to the middle class suburban demo more directly than ever before. Maybe it’s a bunch of teenagers wearing their diverse tastes and faux individuality on their sleeves, grossly courting the next generation via mass e-mails, vlogging, quirky covers and shallow signifiers, dressing up their shitty music in skinny jeans and vintage t-shirts. But perhaps the door was opened in plain site before such unfortunate pansy-hop gained traction and maybe this is the inevitable evolution of a generation of 90s babies who had previously unseen levels of access to a broad selection of free media. And maybe it has precedence in the History of Hip Hop, an origin not quite as detestable as the movement it wrought. Perhaps it originated with two young men fighting for an entire section of the country’s place in their medium who loudly demanded that there was room for un-cool introspection and honesty, for questioning and poetic eloquence. Or maybe it was Kanye.

While artists like Nas, Biggie and Tupac began focusing and fleshing out the imagined individual glorified and vilified so eloquently during the first Golden Era it was these two that scrapped the need for the persona all together and began to truly dig at the personal in their music. These two differentiated themselves from the general Native Tongue style they emulated, in which the narrative is that of the disembodied observer, free form and filled with imagery but ultimately detached from a grounded, consistent personal pathos. Floating in a patois of be-bop slang. A sort of crossroads of two approaches, they made individuality and its explication a premium. And they did it with assurance, with sure footedness, with unapologetic flourish, utterly certain in their uncertainty. Appropriately, together they are known as Outkast from East Point, Georgia, and they accomplished it on their commercially viable sophomore LP, ATLiens.

Looking back on their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (released exactly 15 years ago this week) in respect to the rest of the Kast’s body of work, it’s clearly a moment of revelation, beginnings on their way towards something much bigger. For starters, it was attempting to establish a regional voice where none had really existed previously and this can be felt heavily in the aesthetic being etched, the universe of down hominess and Southern pride that would be a given by the time of the second LP’s creation. The pimpin subject matter is merely an excuse to hone the fully formed rapid fire raps around woozy falsetto soul hooks and muddied funk beats that make up the album’s 17 tracks. However, even here there is a certain old soul quality to their shit talk. A laid back, dilated pupil sense of history amongst the effrontery waiting to be expounded upon.

You May Die (Intro)

I have personally never seen anything approaching the artistic maturation Outkast underwent in the course of the 2 years between the releases of Southernplayalistic and ATLiens. Following a year as rap stars out on the road promoting Southernplayalistic, the group returned to Atlanta greatly changed. It was more than the worldly exposure they received on tour. Both out of their teens, Big Boi truly experienced the joys and pain of life for the first time with the birth of his first child and the death of his de facto mother, Aunt Renee. Dre was dumped by his girlfriend of two years, Keisha Spivey from Bad Boy’s R&B outfit Total and began to embrace a new lifestyle which included sobriety, a vegetarian diet and increasingly eccentric sense of style channeling George Clinton, Afrika Bambaataa and Aladdin. (though at the time he was better understood as weirdo than Hipster) ATLiens is a 14 song Philosophy course taught from the dungeon in Atlanta or a satellite orbiting Earth. The album is one of the best sequencing jobs done on a Hip Hop album, mapped out along the lines of a Classic Rock masterpiece. It doesn’t move so much as it evolves. The first track is immediate evidence in a shift in focus, just as Peaches’ introduction on Southernplayalistic encompasses Organized Noize’s cosmic yet rooted busy funk and Outkast’s meditative fire, “You May Die” is stony and subdued. In an alien language (possibly latin) a woman lustily utters the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” followed by a morose mini ballad filled with yearning. It communicates the existential crises and mortality wrestling that lies at the albums' core.

The importance of Outkast’s production contributions to the album under the title Earth Sounds cannot be understated. Andre was proactive in becoming more involved in the sound of his product, and along with Big Boi they contributed 5 very important songs to ATLiens. Their eclectic tastes bleed into their unorthodox beats, and without them the album could not have shown the same character. Reverb, filters and unconventional instrumentation are all staples of the production debuted by Dre and Big Boi on ATLiens and it’s hard to imagine their philosophizing working over anything but this pitch perfect backdrop. What’s interesting to see is how the rookies’ wishes seem to influence Organized Noize, whose work on the second half of the album is unlike anything they’d done before or since. Outkast’s post ATLiens output as a group, the psychedelic, p-funky Aquemini and its electric kool aid bastard child Stankonia would veer away from the more classically oriented funk sounds that characterized the first two albums. ATLiens is that o-zone between soul and space, Organized Noize and Earth Sounds.

Ova Da Wudz

Andre is the engine, captivating throughout, completely in control of the style he fathered. But while the focus remains on 3000 as a sort of Hipster Rap Godfather we would be remiss to ignore Big Boi, the foil who doesn’t shy from Andre’s embrace of whim and mood and keeps many of his more wandering narratives throughout the album grounded. He brings menace to “Ova Da Wudz”, lending real world urgency to a song about the very real struggle of financial solvency and often saves this album as well as a majority of Outkast’s work from a one dimensional, star gazing sob fest. Antwan lends Andre’s poetry "legitimacy", an immediate sense of place and makes the overall product palatable, a swagger without which Andre could’ve indeed drowned face down in the mainstream. That’s not to say he’s Andre’s straight man, a Pimp C figure laughing and shit talking his way through the proceedings. While not without his own eclectic leanings, over the years it’s been Big Boi that’s done all the leg work, coming to meet Andre in whatever direction he turns, reigning his impulses earthbound and always up to the challenge regardless of the subject matter or BPMs. (See: His hands down besting of an Andre totally in his coffee shop element on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”) His solo work indicates his own creative energies lie in a different direction, but with Andre there to lead the way, 3000 could not have asked for a more worthy Scottie Pippen.


That being said, even the most stout contrarian couldn’t argue against Benjamin as the group’s innovator, the element that elevates them above commercially viable into the pantheon of the all time greats. (Though they are equally crucial to the success of the group) On “Babylon”, a one part monastery one part gospel beat, an example of a work seemingly more Earth Sounds than Organized Noize though it is not, the only child gets his Brett Easton Ellis on, voicing his alienation as he critiques the crass sexuality of a lost generation. (Something Kanye and Kid Cudi are no stranger to in their blatant, middle school drama form) It’s probably my favorite Andre verse of all time for the artful, affecting opening, equating his own conception with the reality his peers grew up around and what he perceives as the sad, desensitized results as they have come of age.

E.T. (Extraterrestrial)

At his ruminative best, Dre’s passion takes the form of critiquing unimaginative placated hip hop, but looking back it’s more of a straw man, (not unlike Wale, who uses the market and surrounding competition as reoccurring subject matter and means to fuel his fire) Andre’s excuse to plumb the depths and voice his estrangement. (“Mainstream”, “13th Floor/Growin Old”, “Wailin’”) He sounds like a missionary with a crusade, filled with a romantic idealist’s passionate dismay but in his own way deliriously happy to have a cause to get behind. On “E.T. (Extraterrestrial)”, a drumless Earth Sounds beat that emulates the sounds of a ticking clock and a chirping cricket, Andre is at once in this moment of his life and above it. The listener can sense his reveling in these humble, formative years as an artist at the height of his talents, seemingly able to foresee his inevitable ascent and the hollow boredom that he’d find in popular acknowledgment and the mastery of his craft. Andre feels more comfortable meandering through this time and place as a young inquisitive underdog filled with wonder at the large world around him, one he’s not yet in control of. It’s this existential journey that forced him to examine his desires and failures, his dreams and aspirations. The things he loves in his life and the ways he has been let down. It made for amazing music and Hip Hop had never seen anything quite like it.

In subject matter ATLiens' first single “Elevators (Me and You)” is a kind of “Paid In Full” moment for Outkast. It’s their creative process, their creation myth and their mission statement. Not so different from Rakim’s economy fueled hunger, his desire for fish and a reassuring knot in his pocket, Andre stares at the ceiling fan in his studio waiting for the spark of inspiration, the recognition he’s hungry for, freedom from life’s small woes in order to allow him to focus on a bigger picture. He expresses this as more than external forces bearing down but as an internal struggle, making a lead single about his competing motivations as an artist in the everyday. The song is the moment on the album when focus abruptly shifts, gone are the fish and grits, the Cadillac bangers and love anthems, the uptempo Organized Noise productions that aren’t so different from their work on Southernplayalistic. It was the first Earth Sounds beat ever made by the duo, the first we hear on the album that is truly unique and progressive, different from anything the boys had rapped over previously and it sets the tone for the rest of ATLiens with its understated, otherworldly quality. The rim shots echo through negative space like a message being beamed into the dark recesses of the universe in hope of making contact, like Andre’s lonely quest for understanding and community in his rhymes, as another insatiable writer once put it, like fat fingers of light in one sky, searching.

1 comment:

Tomiwa said...

Beast of an album and beast of a post, nice to get a little background info on the conditions that led to that album. I always wondered how they got so old and wise all of a sudden.

I did a couple of posts on ATLiens vs. Jay-Z and post millenial hip hop. I'd pay really good money for an ATLiens quality album from anyone in hip hop right now.