Growing up with ATLiens

I associate my first two cars with albums. The second ride, Bomobile II, will be connected to Juvenile’s 400 Degreez. I spent summer ’99 rolling through Atlanta with my boys Dandric, Ced and Lurch, kickin’ it hard the days I had work the next morning, sleeping two hours a night during the week and crashing all the way, then getting back to it on Saturday. Juvie was the soundtrack, the first artist I’d ever completely underestimated, only to find he was one of my favorites. Lemme tell ya — a summer of Mannie Fresh ain’t the worst thing in the world.

But my first car was all about ATLiens. It came out the summer before my senior year. I turned 16 in August, and I brother’s old car since he got a company car from his new gig. Since it was his college ride, it was perfect for me — tinted out with Boston Acoustic speakers in the back dash and a strong head unit. I put two Fosgate 10s in boxes, threw ‘em and an amp in the trunk, took a stack of CDs and dubbed about five tapes for riding music. One was ATLiens, and I may have listened to it on the 25 mile drive to school every day. Half on the way, at least. Maybe half on the way home, but definitely half on the way to school.

It was surprising I wore it out, seeing how Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is still my favorite Kast album, and ATLiens still my least favorite not named Idlewild. That’s not to say I didn’t love it. It’s just not that high up on my OutKast hierarchy. But of all the records that were out then, that was my favorite. I loved that they moved toward the records from the East coast that I was most into. It was less about pimpin’ and more about wordplay (which, when I was a less sophisticated thinker, I thought made it smarter and more evolved), even if they were both works in progress on that front.

Plus, it went with the car, and if you don’t love your first car, I have no idea how you can be expected to love anything or anyone else.

The truth is that I could have only loved the album because of how it sounded, because I certainly didn’t get it. I’m just now at the point where I listen to ATLiens and don’t say “wait, that’s what he meant by that?”

But the fact that I thought the beats sounded “East coast” shows how little I got it. It’s just as southern as the first album, almost as reliant on live instrumentation. It’s just really, really dark, which I associated with the Wu et al, which made it East coast to me. In fact, it’s interesting that it was so dark — after a successful debut, hip hop fans usually wind up complaining the sophomore set wasn’t dark enough.

ATLiens came after a debut record that went platinum, was roundly praised by fans and critics alike and, ultimately, was the launching point for the rise of Southern hip hop.

And they were broke. Like, still living at home broke. One fascinating difference between ATLiens and most second albums is lack of “we came up and it’s all good” in its themes. Between Ready to Die and Life After Death, Biggie’s life did a complete shift, and you can hear it in everything he did (even the paranoid joints).

Kast? The carefree stuff of Southernplayalistic was gone. They’d made it, and they found out it really wasn’t shit. It’s not even like they sounded mad. Just frustrated and cynical, like they found out the Wiz was just Richard Pryor.

Cats in ’96 were flashing more money on records than ever, but Andre took “Elevators” as a chance to tell the world he was still as broke as we were. Instead of doing a track about being able to pull more women than ever, they went off on gold diggers and groupies on “Jazzy Belle.” “Wailin’” shows them sounding positively old lamenting what’s happening to rap music and appointing themselves as protectors. “Babylon” shows them at the brink, focused on nothing but buggin’ on everything from Andre’s inability to get love from the freaky chicks to Big Boi mourning the loss of his mother. Not even the title track, the closest thing to a club song on the album, has a lick of fun beyond a quirky hook.

There is no optimism. Chicks are trying to get ‘em. Dudes in the neighborhood are trying to get ‘em. The alien theme makes sense, because Dre and Big Boi seem not to be with anyone but the Dungeon. Yeah, they’re broke as regular folk, but they talk more about being separated from them than in solidarity. They were platinum rappers, Source Award winners, with no money. How many regular people could believe that, let alone relate to it?

Sounds depressing, I know, but it’s not. There’s no whining. It’s observant and contemplative, a snapshot of a moment in time rather than a dramatization. Kast did Southernplayalistic when being grown sounded cooler to them than it proved to be. ATLiens was when reality came into view.

Guess it makes sense that “dark” would go over my head. When I was 16, I hadn’t gone through anything. Nobody especially close to me had died and, as far as upbringings go, I can’t think of many people that had it better. If my folks did nothing else, they have me a childhood that didn’t require worry. Looking back, there isn’t much more that anyone could ask for.

Fast forward 14 years and, of course, it’s a different story. Friendships and relationships that felt like forever proved temporary. Few things I always thought I wanted and worked to get turned out not to be worth it.

This certainly isn’t an atypical story. No one imagines the downside of dreams. That actually sounds like neurosis.

But that’s life, the side of things that no one can explain to you. You’ve got to catch the business end of it before it makes sense.

I didn’t really start picking up on all these things going on in ATLiens until a couple of years ago. I’m not sure how much run I gave it before, but think about this — I had to turn 27 to begin to get something they wrote when they were 20 and 21. And it wasn’t because they didn’t say it clearly. It was because ATLiens was that much more mature than I was.

There is no musical act in whom I have a greater emotional and sentimental investment than OutKast. Southernplayalistic was the first album that ever blew my mind. I grew up in Houston, but I couldn’t relate that much to the rap coming out of the city. My suburban Houston really wasn’t that much like a Geto Boys record. Plus, I was at that age when you try to pretend like you’re too cool for whatever you’re doing. I was born in Atlanta, see, and I could throw that out as my differentiating factor.

(That is hilarious to look at now because, in so many ways, I’m more Houston than I should be. Except that I’m not. I should probably move on before this gets confusing.)

Anyway, then comes this album that was about Atlanta. Take it one step further — I actually did know about the places that they were talking about. That was stuff I knew, even if that knowledge was of really sparse memories (and lots of red, black and green). It’s a really strange hodgepodge of stuff, but I guess you could see why that album could keep my mind occupied for a long time.

But it’s wild to go back and check out albums with the perspective of experience and go back and see if you really do feel it like you thought you did. Sure, there will always be a sentimental attachment, but I imagine it’s gotta be tough for some of you to go back and admit you knew every word to Niggaz4life. I’d like to think you were kinda off that, yanno?

And hey, I’m not judging. I’ve got a few groups — most notably the Underground Kingz — that I find I’ve grandfathered into my new awareness of issues like gender. Or I’ve rationalized why i find Pimp C to be a fascinating genius, even if an oft-reprehensible one. One of the two.

Either way, I’ve gone back to the beginning with Kast, and I find I have very little to detach myself from or rationalize. “D.E.E.P.” is way over the top, as is “We Luv Deez Hoes,” but I go back and get a deeper appreciation for them as I learn more about the world.

Sure, they’re older than I am, but I’m not sure there’s a greater testament to their genius — and their undeniable place as the greatest rap group in the history of history — that folks like me had to grow into what they did as adolescents. One of the reasons it gets harder for a lot of people to listen to rap as they get older is that they outgrow it.

And I’m 30, finally growing into the album from my first car. Incredible.

EDIT: I almost forgot about the production. I’m already up to 1,500 words. Here’s what I’ll say briefly — if you don’t run it in 5.1 with your head near one of the rear speakers, you’re cheating yourself in life.

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