The South had somethin’ to say…
I was talking with my boys Cullen and Kel the other day about which Hip Hop album has the best opening 6 tracks. The convo was spawned by this tweet of mine from 2015:
Long live the first 6 tracks of ATLiens.
— The Harris (@TroyDuBois) September 30, 2015
I took it a step further and said that they were the best opening six tracks in Hip Hop history and I wanted to see if they could prove me wrong. For context, these are probably the two most trusted sources I have on the genre, and if you know me, you know I love this s***. In the process of proving myself to them, I challenged myself to prove it to you too.
So, this is my article on why the first 6 track of ATLiens are the best in Hip Hop history. For pure shits and giggles, I’ve included my favorite lines of each track too.
Track 1: You May Die (Intro)
“You may die, keep on trying.”
Intros are always interesting. Usually, it’s the first thing we hear the day the album drops, and thus sets the table for what’s to come. This is the main reason I listen to albums in order and from the top when I do. I have such a deep respect for the narrative and any opinions without judging the body of work as intended would be unfair to make.
Fresh off of being booed off stage after winning “Best Newcomer” at that wild a** 1995 Source Awards, this album is where the rubber met the road. This track starts with a woman speaking what seems to be a prayer in Portuguese. Translated, it means:
“Nothing that is new comes from the Sun, everything that is new comes from our Lord. Life is a continuation, our Lord is who gives us life, Amen.”
Mix that in with the Quincy Jones “Summer in the City” (perhaps more famously sampled by Pharcyde) sample and the 4.5 mic-sized chip on their shoulder from their debut album and we were in for some trouble. This was foreshadowing to some real Black-righteous space s***.
Track 2: Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)
“Cooler than most playas claim to be…”
Keeping with their southern swagger birthed on their debut, TDB officially starts the album like a smack to a newborn’s a**. They come out the start gates, half a baton in each hand, in a full-out sprint. Upbeat, fierce, and homegrown as ever, they managed to stay calm and just drop bombs here. Juxtaposing the sounds of the heavy drums and piercing kick with the imagery of two cats cruising in a Caddy, makes for a fitting beginning to an album titled ATLiens. In a sort of “Phony Rappers” ATCQ-style approach, the duo flexes their muscles here with two verses a piece; braggadocio style. Starting with an other-worldly “greetings earthlings” alien-dubbed sound bite and ending with a literal “bomb”, this was a shot of Folgers in Hip Hop’s cup screaming “WAKE UP!”
Track 3: ATLiens
“I heard it’s not where you from but where you pay rent. Then I heard it’s not what you make, but how much you spent.”
Ah, the title track. I love when artists decide to name a song after the album. Naturally, it draws attention the song, which also adds pressure to the track, but overall it’s a great thing because it shows effort and thoughtfulness. In this case, though, it’s possible that the whole-a** album took on the name from this song because of how infectious it is!
Billed as the nominal magnum opus of the tape, it doesn’t disappoint. Big Boi bats lead-off again, wasting no time before dropping jewels. 3K, not to be outdone, murders verse 2 waxing poetic on topics like sex, parenthood, and self-efficacy. This is the song, more than any other in the whole wide world, that I wish I could’ve been “of age” for during Freaknik at the AUC; with my shirt off, dancing in the streets, on top of a car. Andre said he had laid off the drugs and alcohol so he could get the signal clear as day; and he did. They both did.
Click here to see a rare performance of this track.
Track 4: Wheelz of Steel
“We take no s***, like um?… stopped up commodes.”
Even when Big Boi is sitting back in flip-flops and socks and sweatpants (in his B-Boy stance), he’s still better than half of your favorite rappers’ favorite rappers. The “wheelz of steel”, a comparison to a DJ’s turntables, take center stage as Outkast teams up with production partner Mr. DJ to create their newly-formed production team titled Earthtone III.
Don’t let the scratching distract you from the bars though. They both split both verses, passing off the flow like a game of Bop-It. Upbeat in nature as well, this song makes it evident that there is no weak link in the tandem. They both touch on themes related to maturity, law and government, and the socioeconomic landscape in vintage free-associative lyricism, and I love it.
Just before giving the DJ some room to scratch as the song fades out, Andre crystallizes their stylized outro style that they’d both go on to use for years in some of their most iconic hits (see songs Rosa Parks, So Fresh So Clean, Roses). Can’t sleep on Kast, even when the song is about the DJ.
While writing this, Cullen had his two cents on the topic of the turntable comparison: “I don’t even know if I would call it a metaphor. Pretty blatant. If anything, I think it’s a simple play on words. Dre uses the words ‘touch’ and ‘feel’ as in the music touches the listener and asks if they are feeling the track. Connect that to the DJ who has to touch/feel the physical vinyl to scratch/cut a record.”
Track 5: Jazzy Belle
“So many plusses when I bust that there can’t be no minus.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard Lil’ Wayne’s Pussy Money Weed. If so, this song may sound familiar. You’ll recall that Weezy paid homage to Dre with his first line “Oh yes I love her like Egyptian, want a description…” and proceeded to seek, kill, and destroy that track from there. Spoiler alert: the original isn’t much different.
Jazzy Belle takes a playful twist on the Biblical character Jezebel, who was said to lead a life of blasphemy, prostitution, and wickedness, ultimately punishable by a horrible death. If you listen closely you’ll notice both Big Boi and 3K spilling the ills of their perception of the modern woman. They are clearly disenchanted. They highlight her disrespect for herself and others, sexual promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, birthing children out of wedlock, and even increased rates of homosexuality (joking that most of the girls they were liking in high school are now dyking).
Though they were barely even 21, Outkast’s Jazzy Belle shines light on the group’s striking ability to provide social commentary on a range of topics through their lyrics without inundating the listener with cloying, flowery metaphors. Whether right, wrong, or exaggerated, they had no issues conveying their opinions on this track.
Note: This is the first track where Andre actually raps first on the album, which brings up an interesting observation: most of Outkast’s commercially successful songs lead with Big Boi (notable exceptions are Players’ Ball, B.O.B., and Elevators).
Track 6: Elevators (Me & You)
“I live by the beat like you live check-to-check. If it don’t move your feet then I don’t eat, so we like neck-to-neck.”
This song is the s***. For anyone who watched Atlanta on FX last summer, hopefully you remember the final scene of Season 1 when this song played. It was just as fitting for Donald Glover and his life as it was for OutKast’s when they dropped it. This was the lead single of the highly-anticipated sophomore album of the de facto voice of the South. Released only a couple weeks before Muhammad Ali would welcome the world to Atlanta’s ’96 Olympics, the torch he carried wasn’t the only thing blazing.
On the first beat they ever produced together (Southernplayalistic was produced entirely by Organized Noize), they found lightning in a bottle. Between the mesmerizing bass line, the extraterrestrial synths, the tickling hi-hat, and that crisp a** kick, the beat paints a picture so vivid in itself before they even open their mouths.
Everybody loves an underdog story. They’re able to put so plainly the realities of being adults with blossoming careers dealing with everyday life scenarios. With over a million records sold and more fans than the average man, fame still did not equal fortune for them. Not yet at least. Not disheartened one bit, though, the song has the general positive vibe with the signature flow we’ve come to expect from them. This is not only my favorite song of their entire catalog, it rests comfortably in my Top 3 of all-time, non-genre or artist specific. It is just… that… good.
That’s all I got folks. This is my case for the first six tracks for ATLiens being the best ever in Hip Hop. If you haven’t heard the album, check it out (all 15 tracks). Thank God for this blog, because those 140 characters weren’t cutting it. Whew.
Courtesy of Cullen and Kel, here are some other notable albums with great first 6 tracks: Illmatic, Late Registration, Tha Carter, Enter the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Edition, Hip Hop is Dead, Black Album, Teflon Don and Aquemini. You can compare for yourself on this playlist.
– Troy @TroyDubois (Originally published on Grits & Gospel)