Nobody anticipated OutKast’s “comeback album” to sound anything like this, but ‘New Blue Sun’ demonstrates that André 3000 still has a fascinating musical mind worthy of picking apart.
Stream: ‘New Blue Sun’ – André 3000
Twenty years ago, when “Hey Ya!” became OutKast’s most unstoppable hit to date and topped the Billboard charts for nine straight weeks, it’s likely that nobody would have conceived that we we were essentially hearing the duo’s swan song.
Yet indeed: Other than Idlewild – a soundtrack that came and went relatively quietly, as did the accompanying movie musical – nary a new release has emerged from the once omnipresent hip-hop titans since they hit their commercial peak in 2003-04. They initially claimed this hiatus was a product of their mutual desires to focus on their individual careers, but only Big Boi and his three solo LPs ever really made good on that promise. André 3000, meanwhile, has largely faded from the limelight he once was rocking away in ecstatically, having hitherto never released a solo album of his own and not returned with another Top 40 hit since “Green Light,” his duet with John Legend, crested at #24 sixteen years ago.
Ultimately, André 3000’s path back to the Billboard charts’ upper echelons probably won’t be achieved by a fully instrumental album with no vocals at all. It’s also fair to assume that many fans would have preferred to have his first batch of new music in ages to have at least had some rapping on it. But given how long it’s been since 3000’s put out music of any sort, it remains satisfying to see the man express his immense creativity for us in one form or another.
Released November 17, 2023 via Epic Records, New Blue Sun is far calmer than most of what the once crazily rambunctious André 3000 delivered in his prime – although it is true that André Benjamin once described André 3000 as “a character I play. He’s wild. But me? I am the most nervous man in the world”. Given that self-description, perhaps it makes sense that Three-Stacks’ go-to instrument throughout much of the record is also one of the softer and less rock concert-ready ones out there: The flute.
Multi-textured as much of OutKast’s catalogue was, it’s hard to think of many songs of theirs in which woodwinds were featured prominently. Yet it turns out that one of Benjamin’s side projects since ‘Kast’s interminable hiatus began was to hone his flute-playing craft, and he’s lately been spotted “roaming around various cities puttering around with his flute.” As the cover of New Blue Sun suggests, he now is ready to show off his skills with this instrument, and multiple forms of it at that— contrabass flute, Mayan flutes, bamboo flutes, and a variety of digital wind instruments among them.
In addition to his own piping talents, Mr. 3000 has also brought about a number of guests to help him paint this new musical canvas.
Among them are guitarist Nate Mercereau, whose background in collaborating with hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and Lizzo seems to have prepared him for adding André 3000 to the list; Alice Coltrane, who evidently shares her late husband John’s composition talents; and Carlos Niño, who serves as the record’s co-producer while also peppering in some percussion snippets. With that kind of lineup, New Blue Sun takes shape as many jazz albums do: set up some talented musicians in the studio, let them do their thing on various instruments, and fuse the results together into one coherent recording.
The results here are frequently entrancing. The opening track– and the one whose title justifies the ensuing record’s entire existence – “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make A ‘Rap’ Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me…” sets the standard for much of the ensuing hour-and-a-half. For the first quarter of the song’s 12-minute runtime, Niño delivers of soothing string of percussion shells while Surya Botofasina bangs away on the keyboard. André 3000 finally shows up, flute in hand, around the 3-minute mark, and from there on he delicately pipes his way alongside his collaborators, with some additional instruments such as cymbals and chimes stitched in for good measure. Once the track concludes, it’s a sign that this unexpected new musical direction in which André 3000 has headed is indeed showing some promise.
Much of the rest of the album follows this basic template. Lots of long titles (anywhere between six and twenty-two words); long song lengths (a low of four minutes, a high of seventeen); and lots of André 3000’s flute-playing being interwoven with the guest musicians’ varied contributions. Multiple compelling soundscapes emerge as a result.
As could be inferred by some of the names in the song’s title, “Ghandi, Dalai Lama, Your Lord & Savior J.C. / Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, And John Wayne Gacy” evokes the calm and majesty of the Himalayan landscape with its Hinduism-evoking soundbites. The album’s most upbeat track, “BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears a 3000® Button Down Embroidered,” earns that distinction through some impressive pedal guitar work on André’s part and some nifty synthesizers courtesy of Botofasina.
Finally, closing track “Dreams Once Buried Beneath the Dungeon Floor Slowly Sprout into Undying Gardens” carries things over the finish line through a prolonged tranquil woodwind sequence punctuated by some cool cymbals, gongs and synths. Once a seamless collaborator with other rappers – Killer Mike, Goodie Mob and Raekwon among them – André 3000 has proven to be a worthy creative ally to his fellow multi-instrumentalists now that he’s allowed that new creative mantra to take over.
In the end, New Blue Sun may evoke less of the wild character of André 3000 and more of “the most nervous man in the world” that André Benjamin purports to be. Yet if it takes a wordless flute-dominated record for that gentle and delicate side of Mr. Benjamin to be exhibited most pristinely, than so be it.
Welcome back to the music biz, André.
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© Kai Regan
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