OutKast always seemed more interested in probing the depths of their interests over settling into one idea.
For 14 years, the Atlanta duo synthesized their voracious musical appetites, continuously blurring the boundaries of Southern rap—a genre they could be credited with inventing.
The two played off of each other perfectly. Big Boi was the grounded, West Savannah realist, rapping in precise rhythmic figures about keeping both feet planted on Earth. André 3000 was concerned with the cosmic, his flow untethered and exploratory, reaching further into the ether with each breath. He’d always understood that being human is an interesting evolutionary accident, the result of a diffuse set of molecules coming together just so: “Me and everything around me is unstable like Chernobyl,” he rapped on ATLiens deep cut “Millenium.”
On later OutKast records, as Big Boi fashioned himself as a Georgia funk auteur, André evolved from silver-tongued poet to paisley-patterned pop star. By the time he got to The Love Below, he was channeling figures like Prince and Sly Stone.
Once OutKast went quiet and Big Boi began issuing his own ambitious solo work, fans began to yearn for a 3 Stacks record. He’d pop up every now and again on someone else’s song with an unbelievable verse, then fade back into the mist. In 2019, when people reported seeing André playing a Mayan double flute in airports and cities across the world, it only deepened his lore. He was a sage descending from the mountain, materializing to deliver a momentary blessing. Every joyful confirmed sighting had an air of winking amusement, acknowledging how appropriate it seemed; “Playing a flute in the airport is peak André 3K,” tweeted one fan.
Given the unpredictable trajectory of André’s work, it’s not shocking that New Blue Sun, his first album in 17 years, is a collection of diaphanous New Age music, an ambient jazz record in which he plays a digital wind instrument. It’s a lush, beautiful record in the mold of John and Alice Coltrane’s spiritual excursions or Laraaji’s orange-hued inner space journeys. The blend of organic and electronic textures places André alongside artists like John Hassell or Justin Walter, “Fourth World” composers who infuse their warped sounds with warmth, making the unfamiliar feel inviting. It’s a bold reinvention from someone known for bold reinventions.
There are no words and no beats, and the only reference to André’s previous career is the title of the first track: “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album But This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.” Still, New Blue Sun feels inextricably connected to the music André made with OutKast. His command of rhythm is sinewy and elastic as ever, and certain moments, like the circular repeated motifs in the aforementioned track, feel an 808 and handclap away from a silken Organized Noize production. Perhaps most importantly, André knows how to weave in and out of an ensemble, using his playing in service of the music rather than searching for the spotlight.
The record is a collection of long improv jams. Carlos Niño, the Los Angeles percussionist and producer, helped facilitate the sessions after a chance meeting with André at a grocery store. The two began jamming and Niño, a staple in the LA experimental jazz scene, brought in some of its key players to flesh out the troupe: Surya Botofasina on synthesizers, Nate Mercereau on guitars and live sampling, Leaving Records’ Matthewdavid on “mycelium electronics,” and more. Together, they entwine like tendrils of smoke, gently hovering around each other in space.
Because it’s improvisational music, the seams often show. You follow them on their meandering journey as if you’re sitting in the room with them, watching them learn to operate as a unit. If you listen with headphones, you can hear musicians breathing, pressing guitar pedals, shifting in seats. If you let it play in the background, it helps an hour and a half drift by languorously, like a cat following the afternoon sun.
The album’s strongest moments come when André and company lean into their more hallucinatory inclinations. Halfway through “BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears a 3000® Button Down Embroidered,” the group meshes together in a psychedelic haze. Botofasina’s synths stretch around André’s snaking solo and Niño’s shimmering percussion, a crescendo that builds into a blissful swirl. On “Ants to You, Gods to Who ?” André sends his digital flute through a trippy slapback delay. The rest of the players reach to the sky, blending their instruments into a billowing mass before dissipating like early morning fog. Each song has moments that feel like the microdose has taken effect, and it’s hard not to feel increasingly more relaxed as the record goes on.
Despite New Blue Sun’s beauty, it’s hard to know how to consider the record. If it didn’t bear the name of one of the greatest rappers to ever live, how would we react to it?
Some fans are predictably annoyed by André’s left turn, and comments online from those thrown by the genre have run the gamut from eye-rolling dismissal to outright anger. If his name was removed, it would just be another stellar ambient jazz release in the vein of the Moon Glyph records roster or Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8.
The context is inseparable here: Yes, New Blue Sun is receiving a healthy amount of praise because it’s André 3000, but it’s also a truly wonderful piece of music. André doesn’t owe us anything—the fact that we’re getting a new album from him at all is a blessing.
It’s brave in the way that André has always been, a reminder that the most courageous thing you can do is self-expression.