It’s as true now as it was 15 years ago: OutKast is the coolest motherfucking band on the planet. For proof, let’s turn to the mastermind behind the outfit, André 3000. Who else can get away with asking “What’s cooler than being cool?” while standing on stage wearing a WASPy argyle sweater vest and a pink bow tie? And who can actually receive a wave of ecstatic response because of that comment? Not even the seemingly infallible Lil Wayne could pull that one off.

Even from the beginning, OutKast just seemed to get everything right. The group’s debut, 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, was an innovative, funk-‘n’-grits style hip-hop album that made critics gush and produced the top-20 hit “Players Ball.”

But while OutKast’s first album was an unquestionable success, the release of ATLiens, the group’s sophomore effort, defined when OutKast really became OutKast. Where Southernplaya focused on more traditional hip-hop themes, ATLiens saw the pair move away from weed, women and pimping to tackle subjects rarely heard in hip hop at the time. There’s the honest-to-goodness love song “Jazzy Belle,” in which André shows early signs of his strong moral concern that would later inform songs like The Love Below’s “Behold a Lady”: “I hate thinking that these the future mommas of our children / They fuckin’ a different nigga every time they get the feelin’ to.”

There are also moments of intense introspection, like in “Millennium”: “I never lived up to my expectations so I accept the patience / Expect the worse but now I’m pacin’/ back and forth, inside.” It’s not an accident that a lot of the rhymes on the record seem remarkably clear-headed — Andre made the choice to give up all substances before recording. On the title track, he spits “We be so sincere with this here / No drugs or alcohol so I can get the signal clear.”

It wasn’t just that ATLiens was unlike anything in hip hop, nay, music, in 1996. Innovation aside, the group’s pure vocal skills were enough to make the album a classic. Big Boi and André made emceeing a sport, spitting out rhythms that would make top jazz musicians blush. To hear André ease through the tongue-cramping rhyme “While the rest of the country bungies off bridges without no snap back and bitches they say they need that to shake they fannies in the ass clubs” — all in only two measures — is to hear sheer genius at work.

Then there’s the production. For the second disc in a row, OutKast chose to work with Atlanta-based production squad Organized Noize. Using generous doses of live instrumentation, the beats blend interstellar funk with laid-back Southern soul. Never overwhelming, the music provided a comfortable, groovy backdrop perfect for the duo’s athletic verses to take center stage — which is exactly where they belong.

ATLiens is pioneering, completely original and about as good as a hip-hop album can get. It’s amazing, then, that it isn’t even OutKast’s best record. Stankonia and even Aquemini somehow improved on the few things OutKast got wrong on ATLiens. However, it is the album with which one of music’s most compelling groups formed its identity, and it was the first real step for one of the most successful careers in modern music. Before “Rosa Parks,” “Hey Ya” and argyle sweater vests, there was ATLiens hinting at the things to come.

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