André 3000 has taken a long time to get here.
Earlier this week, the mercurial rap legend announced the surprise release of a solo album—something the public has been clamoring for ever since OutKast seemingly rode off into the sunset over a decade ago. While his former partner, Big Boi, has cultivated a strong solo career since then, the more mysterious half of OutKast hasn’t released a full album since the duo’s 2006 soundtrack for their movie Idlewild. And he’s spent the past 17 years indulging his muse mostly away from music, while occasionally dropping guest verses on other artists’ prominent rap projects, seemingly on a whim.
Now, Three Stacks returns with New Blue Sun, an instrumental album of flute-driven songs that he co-produced with musical impresario Carlos Nino, a mainstay of the New Age jazz scene in California who’s worked with everyone from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to Madlib. The preceding buzz this week for the album was expected—as was the speculation as to what it would sound like for one of the best rappers of all time to drop an album entirely devoid of rapping.
But to anyone paying attention, this wasn’t wholly unexpected. Last year, André made a much-hyped appearance on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once, contributing four tracks, all of which were flute-driven instrumentals. That now appears to have been a preamble for the ATLien’s first full-length proper solo album. New Blue Sun radiates an amicable eccentricity that is something of a trademark for André at this point; he’s built his legend on being decidedly outside the framework of anyone’s expectations. And even casual fans know he’s been spotted playing the flute in various, unexpected places—it became something of a viral game to figure out where André and his flute would turn up next.
For New Blue Sun, André has given a couple of illuminating interviews to address the most obvious aspects of his new project—namely, why he didn’t record a rap album. Speaking to NPR’s Rodney Carmichael, he explained that he holds himself to a high creative standard: “That’s my only gauge,” he said. “I have to like it as a person, as an artist myself, because if I don’t like it I can’t expect nobody else to like it. I can’t pretend in that way. That’s always been hard for me.”
The 12-plus minute opening track, “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a Rap Album But This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time,” may have a cheekily explanatory title, but it feels most assured—an ambient journey of sound that rises and falls in distinct sections, with an elegantly wistful melody throughout. On the darker, deeper “That Night in Hawaii When I Turned Into a Panther and Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn’t Control … Sh¥t Was Wild,” he attempts to musically recall a hallucinogenic experience he’d had on ayahuasca.
“When I say it transcended me, it took me to different places to play,” the 48-year-old artist told NPR. “Like we don’t sit around and say, okay, we’re going to play these chords. ’Cause I don’t know chords. I don’t know keys. I don’t know notes. I’ve always produced in that way, just kind of doing it. And so in this situation, we have the engineer set up and we just press record and find ourselves and listen to each other.”
Indeed, there’s an undeniable beauty and impulsiveness about New Blue Sun, an album that feels wide open without sounding aimless. The improvisational nature shines, and the spontaneity gives way to musical themes that are repeated to cathartic effect. There’s a playful energy to “The Slang Word P(*)ssy Rolls Off the Tongue With Far Better Ease Than the Proper Word Vagina. Do You Agree?” as lush synths and chimes make for a dynamic musical dance. Elsewhere, the album’s winds, keys, and chimes keep the vibe breezy, but never boring.
Inasmuch as André cites them both as influences on New Blue Sun, the song “BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears a 3000 Button Down Embroidered” sounds like Brian Eno sitting in with Coltrane—Alice, not John. Her restless and boundless spontaneity is clearly a jumping-off point, while the track’s abstract synths recall Eno at his most ethereal. The project’s easygoing but emotional musicianship never feels cloying, and closing track “Dreams Once Buried Beneath the Dungeon Floor Slowly Sprout Into Undying Gardens” is arguably the most cerebral and subdued moment on an album driven by mood and feel.
This obviously isn’t the first time a high-profile rapper has defied audiences and critics by delivering a non-rap album. The clearest precedent for New Blue Sun is Q-Tip’s fabled second album Kamaal the Abstract, which was ostensibly an alt-jazz album. But the anticipation that surrounded André 3000’s announcement makes this a unique experience and a singularly brave creative statement—even if fans really shouldn’t be that surprised.
If anything, André’s almost apologetic reminders that New Blue Sun contains “no bars” feel like overkill. The preoccupation with what the album isn’t is almost distracting from how accomplished this music sounds. Dropping a project almost entirely devoid of commercial allowances frees the artist up to be wholly immersed in his own creativity. And the results are often moving.
André 3000’s musical excursions shouldn’t even be viewed as excursions at this point. From the early aughts on, he’s made it clear that he’s not interested in adhering to anyone’s definition of a “rapper.” Even while proving time and again that he’s one of the best emcees ever, he’s genre-hopped from rock to blues to jazz across OutKast projects, and even outside of that legendary duo. Its ubiquitousness might make one downplay just how bold a single like “Hey Ya” was back in 2003, and The Love Below—his half of OutKast’s Grammy-winning 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—made it clear that he was willing to stretch into sonically eclectic territory.
New Blue Sun is the latest example of an artist who has always marched to his own beat, and it proves that André 3000’s creativity knows no bounds. He’s never let a little thing like genre labels slow him down. Why start now?
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