This was it. This was when OutKast grew from a group I really liked into "these are my dudes."
ATLiens is one of my favorite albums and not just in hip hop, but all genres. That puts it in the class with Issac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul, Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, and Sade's Love Deluxe. There are other hip hop albums that I can recite from beginning to end (Big Daddy Kane's Long Live the Kane comes to mind) but I have never been so moved by an album as I was with ATLiens.
1996 ~ ATLiens
In part one, I mentioned that my main man, Jay, was a student at Morehouse. By 1996, Atlanta had become Jay's new home as he was spent less and less time in Detroit. For me, I had graduated from Hampton and while many had told me that once I graduated everything would go smooth, I was amid the despondency of disappointment stemming from not being able to secure a job. When Jay came home for a short visit, he encouraged me to go to graduate school (which I did) and he also left me with a small gift.
The gift was a dubbed-over cassette that had snippets of new OutKast songs. To alleviate my melancholy, I played the snippets over and over and was taken by how much Dre and Big Boi (the duo that is OutKast) had grown.
One Saturday evening, my girlfriend was treating me to the movies to boost my spirits. We were on Wyoming Road when the local radio DJ played Elevators. I lost my damn mind!!! My girlfriend hadn't seen me so enthused in months. The version of Elevators that came on the radio was much more polished than the snippet I had been playing And truth be told, the sound system in my girlfriend's Escort was much better than the sounds in my ten-year old Thunderbird.
When the song opens and the beat drops, even now nearly two decades later, it prompts the biggest smile from my heart and soul. I was not the only one excited by the new song, the DJ announced that the song was so good, he would play it again. So immediately following the first playing, he followed with it again. By that time, me and my girlfriend were singing along:
Me and you
Yo' mama and yo' cousin too
Rollin' down the strip on Vogues
Comin' up, slamming Cadillac doors
In retrospect, I find it a bit ironic to recognize the evolution of Dre and Big Boi into distinctive young men was comparable to my own and Jay's evolution. On their first album, it took repeated listens for me to distinguish Dre from Big Boi. But by ATLiens, they were uniquely distinct. In one way that distinction was apparent in their attire. While Big Boi wore the garb of an urban young man (a bit different from that of a teen), Dre's wardrobe evolution was accented by the headgear he wore. Most would recognize that headgear as something their mothers or grandmothers would wear to cover or conceal their bad-hair days. I can't say why Dre went this route, but it worked for him. His uniqueness was beginning to bud. At the same time, Jay had become engrossed in Atlanta living which was apparent by his humungous Afro and tattoo. Meanwhile, I had morphed into an often unshaven college grad who wore kufis. The parallels of theirs and our distinctive paths to manhood is caputered in this still from their JazzyBelle video:
In spite of their divergent paths it is their evolution as men and artist that endears me to OutKast.
As avid hip hop head, I have an array of artists, songs, and albums that I enjoy. Yet, there is not a hip hop album that does for me what ATLiens does. In addition to being immensely relevant to that stage of my life, the continuity within the album is what sets it apart from others. Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back is a marvelous album, a masterpiece; but it does not have the song-to-song continuum that ATLiens has. While I am sure that there are other outstanding albums that embody that continuum (Eric B. & Rakim's Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em would be one), I believe that singular vibe reflects OutKast's focus to create an enduring art that is rooted in their previous offering while also incorporating their unique growth.
Which makes the ending spoken word interlude (by Big Rube) and last song, Growing Old, the perfect cap to a remarkable album. When Dre rhymes:
My mind catches flashbacks to the black past
While mind close n****s laugh at
The Southern slang, finger waves and Mojo chicken wangs
I grew up on booty shake we did not know no better thangs
So go 'head and, diss it, while real hop-hippers listen
Started by Afrika Bambaata, so you and your partner
Gather your thoughts
He incorporates his (our) roots, some adversity he is facing, and his commitment to push through it. Exactly the same thoughts I carried in 1996, my first foray into true manhood. As I said previously, "these are my dudes" because they represented where I was and where I could go.
Check back tomorrow for Part 3.