Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Art & Culture > André 3000 remains impossible to pin down

André 3000 remains impossible to pin down

A swerve into the post-hippie territory of spiritual jazz, ambient music and free improv is absolutely on brand for André 3000

'New Blue Sun' by Andre 3000. Image via AP
'New Blue Sun' by Andre 3000. Image via AP

André 3000 has always been one of rap’s more eccentric geniuses. Over the decade or so (1994-2006) he ruled the charts as one half of legendary Atlanta rap duo Outkast, the rapper excelled at landing artistic sucker-punches from left-field. He treated his voice like playdough, moulding it into new pitches and tempos on the fly. He crafted rhymes that are almost architectural, complete with trap-door entendres and subterranean subtext. With every album, he adopted new personas and outfits, each more outrageous than the last. He was rap’s answer to Sun Ra, a visionary who seemed to come from outer space with a radical, perspective-shifting take on black culture and musicality. So I guess it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that André’s first solo release in 17 years, New Blue Sun, is a new-age instrumental album, 87 minutes of minimalist flute melodies and new age spiritual ambience, with nary a human voice on offer.

When the news first dropped, it sounded like a joke: yet another piece of masterful trolling by an artist who revels in irony and unpredictability. Just look at the wordy, self-aware song titles. The opener is called I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make A ‘Rap’ Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time. Another song, inspired by an ayahuasca ritual, bears the name 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 even misspells Gandhi as Ghandi. Surely you are joking Mr. Benjamin.

Also read: ‘The Archies’ review: The young and the zestless

But he’s not. It all makes more sense when you dig into the album’s origin myth. After Outkast’s dissolution in the mid-2000s, André retreated from the limelight. He still popped up with occasional limelight-stealing guest verses—on tracks from Beyoncé, James Blake, Drake and Frank Ocean—but there was no long-awaited solo rap record, not even a single. Every once in a while, fans would catch him walking around Los Angeles (LA), playing on a woodwind flute. Taking videos of these impromptu performances became like an online Where’s Waldo? game for his fans, as he told NPR in a recent interview.

Then, on a grocery-shopping trip to hipster health food chain Erewhon in LA, he ran into Carlos Niño: a percussionist and record producer who likes to call himself the “Communicator”. That moniker is partly a nod to the new-age spirituality that has always appealed to a certain type of California native. But it’s also an acknowledgement of the central role he plays in the LA music scene, bringing together artists from across the spectrum. His project, Carlos Niño & Friends, involves getting a bunch of musicians over to his studio, prompting them to improvise on whatever instruments they find, and then crafting those jams into meditative, alt-jazz soundscapes. Niño’s orbit includes Kamasi Washington, Madlib, Jamire Williams, Dexter Story, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Soon after that chance meeting at Erewhon, André also started showing up at Niño’s house with his flute to jam.

Niño introduced André to many of the players who appear on New Blue Sun—guitarist Nate Mercereau, keyboardist Surya Botofasina, and ambient label Leaving Records founder Matthewdavid, who plays “mycelial electronics” on one track. They would all get together and jam with no real end-goal, just a bunch of talented artists revelling in music, with a healthy side-dish of healing and a very Los Angeles brand of spirituality. It reads like an elaborate send-up of Hollywood oddballs, but it’s all painfully sincere, and somehow charming. Other 1990s’ rappers may age gracefully into billionaire businessmen (Jay-Z) or transform themselves into the elder statesmen of coke rap (Nas). A swerve into the post-hippie territory of spiritual jazz, ambient music and free improv is absolutely on brand for 48-year-old André.

It’s hard to pin down the music on these eight tracks, though they all draw from the same emotional wellspring. Mournful keys and gentle swells of melancholic synths suggest grief and loss—André has buried his father, mother and stepfather in the past decade—but the pain is dulled and distant, the scars faded by time and acceptance. The airy, free-flowing melodies of his flutes—both woodwind and digital—reflect a hard-earned sense of peace, and low-key joy. The delicate, minimal flute notes flit through a lush, groovy dreamscape of carefully layered guitar, bells, chimes, and soft-footed percussion, like a solitary clownfish swimming through a verdant coral reef. The album exists somewhere on a spectrum between the modal jazz of Alice Coltrane, the minimalism of Philip Glass, and the new-age revivalism of labels like Leaving Records and Rvng Intl. It’s also entirely its own thing.

New Blue Sun isn’t the best ambient/jazz/new-age album to come out this year, despite all the hype around it. There are plenty of other contenders to that throne. It’s also not the return to form that hip hop fans have been waiting for since 2003’s The Love Below. That may or may not still be coming down the line. But it is a worthy record, littered with moments of technical brilliance and emotional vulnerability. As far as late-career pop stars taking a hard-left into weirdo avant-garde territory, it’s right up there with Lou Reed’s confounding, controversial 1975 album Metal Machine Music, only a lot more listenable. He may not rap anymore, or dress up in a pith helmet, shoulder pads and furry sarong. But on New Blue Sun, André shows that he’s still one of pop music’s most visionary oddballs, and that’s enough.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

Also read: K.S. Radhakrishnan’s poetic expression in bronze

Next Story