I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a Rap Album...
André Benjamin – best known as André 3000, one half of the iconic hip-hop duo Outkast – is one of the most revered, celebrated artists of the last three decades, an auteur whose work in music, film, fine arts, fashion, and more continues to influence the cultural landscape on a global scale. Outkast's imprint on pop culture has made them one of the defining acts of our time, immeasurably impacting on sound, fashion, and achievement. Outkast released six groundbreaking studio albums – "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" (1994), "ATLiens" (1995), "Aquemini" (1998), "Stankonia" (2000), "Speakerboxx / The Love Below" (2003) and "Idlwild" (2006) – and the duo's success signified a sea change for hip-hop. Indeed, since its release twenty years ago, "Speakerboxx / The Love Below" has become the best-selling hip hop album of all time, with over 13 million albums sold in the U.S. alone.
After conquering the world of popular music, André's boundless creativity led him in other directions and he soon set his sights other mediums, becoming a highly sought-after actor in acclaimed films such as "JIMI: All Is By My Side", "High Life" (for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award), "Four Brothers", and more, in addition to television shows like "The Shield" and "Dispatches From Elsewhere". From 2006 until 2008, he created, executive produced, and voiced a character on the Cartoon Network show "Class of 3000", which won an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement" in Animation. He created a personally-inspired clothing line. In recent years, he has contributed verses to songs by revered artists such as Beyoncé, Drake, Frank Ocean, John Legend, Jay-Z, Anderson Paak and more.
André 3000 has lived without anchors, gently floating in a breeze. Blink and you might miss him: There he is in Japan, flashing a bright smile and a peace sign, his other hand holding a custom wooden flute. There he is again, this time in an airport terminal, playing a few spare notes to pass the time. Casually walking around like he's not who he is? It's why you've seen him in scattered social media clips in recent years: The brother is so admired that any glimpse of him needs to be preserved.
But here's the gag: André isn't BigFoot. He isn't some mythical being living in the hills. He's very much aware of his legend as an award-winning actor, one-half of the Grammy-winning rap duo Outkast, and master of the show-stopping guest verse. Despite the fame, he's still a journeyman, a student of nature and creativity – searching, navigating, listening to the wind.
Wind is the most essential element of his new solo album, "New Blue Sun", an ambient offering co-produced by Carlos Niño that brings André's flute playing to the center. André and Niño met each other in 2020; André had just moved to Los Angeles and mutual friends suggested they connect. Niño was hosting an Alice Coltrane tribute event and André went to it, flute in tow. Soon after, they started playing in Niño’s home studio, planting the seeds for this collaboration. They began working on "New Blue Sun" in 2022. André took an interest in wind instruments at least 20 years ago. Though he experimented with guitars and bass, he liked how flutes and saxophones sounded. A jazz fan, he read that John Coltrane played clarinet before he played the sax, so he bought a clarinet and started playing it. He points to the end of 2003's "She Lives In My Lap" as a gateway to his wind instrument playing. He belts out a few screechy wails to conclude the song. In 2019, André was featured on the James Blake track "Where's the Catch?" There, he starts playing the bass clarinet with Blake on piano. The engineer captured the session and they put it out.
"I've been interested in winds for a long time, so it was just a natural progression for me to go into flutes", André says. "I just like messing with instruments and I gravitated mostly toward wind." The album features a core group of today's best healing music players: Niño on bells, chimes, cymbals, drums, gongs, plants and percussion; Nate Mercereau on guitar, guitar synth and live sampling; and Surya Botofasina on keyboards and synthesizers. André plays several different wind instruments on this album, including a digital wind instrument, a Maya flute, and others made of wood and bamboo.
And before you ask: No, there aren't any rhymes on this LP. In fact, there aren't any words. It's a fully instrumental record with long-running songs and equally long-winded titles. The opening song is 12 minutes and is called "I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a Rap Album But This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time."
"There's this misconception that I just won't do it", André says of releasing a rap record. "I think people feel like I'm sitting around on rap albums, or sitting around and I'm just not putting them out in that way. And no it's not like that." He continues: "In my mind, I really would like to make a rap album. So maybe that happens one day, but I got to find a way to say what I want to say in an interesting way that's appealing to me at this age."
The album's second song is a celestial arrangement with an edgy title: "The Slang Word P(*)ssy Rolls Off the Tongue with Far Better Ease Than the Proper Word Vagina. Do You Agree?" He did that to bridge the gap between hip-hop and New Age. "A lot of times I think people, especially Black people in the hood, look at it like, 'Oh, them people over there'", André says. "It's like a separation. And that's why with the song titles, we kind of kept it playful a lot of times. Or we got a little raw because I wanted to still feel light at times. Or give it some type of balance, make it just attractive for people to come in."
Indeed, when certain listeners consider ambient music, they think it's too weird or too sleepy to enjoy. But there's a lot going on within this music that shouldn't be discounted. Not everything needs 808 drums and trunk-rattling bass. "What people will call New Age-y or spiritual-ish, people consider it heavy", André says. "And I think, because I'm coming from rap and I knew a different audience, different eyes would be following me and looking at it. So I wanted to make sure that what I contribute to this world brings a certain lightness or humanness."
On purpose, André wants you to slow down, reset, and sit still. Let the music unfold. See where the air takes you: "I just want to transport people from wherever they are. Explore. Pay attention to what you are paying attention to, and go towards it."
Influenced by Laraaji, Brian Eno, Alice Coltrane, Steve Reich and Pharoah Sanders, New Blue Sun envisions a vast world of exploration. "In this world", André continues, "the sun will be blue so it's actually a different world, as if this sun we are looking at now that we are living by, that sun is going to die out at some point." The human race will still need warmth. "I don't even know what they're going to look like or what their animals are going to look like", he says. "But in my mind, it would be this cooler burning sun that's blue."
André conveys this through gorgeous melodies that open up and stretch out, conjuring views of the place he imagines. On "I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a Rap Album...", I see the sun rising over the terrain. I feel the chill hanging in the air, the promise of abundance and new beginnings. The song feels upbeat, active yet serene, a rightful score for calm reflection or walking through the park before the day gathers steam.
The same goes for "Ninety Three 'Til Infinity and Beyoncé." Here, the sky tussles with menacing clouds, and Diego Gaeta's keys emit a Stevie-esque sensibility. Like Wonder, who often sang of trees and flowers and took Earth's beauty into account, this music tries to assess our significance on the planet. Who are we beneath the breadth of a mountain? How are we so blessed to saunter gently through the meadow? Much of the album feels reflective in that way, leaving a little room for darkness to creep in.
To that end, the album's third song, "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", feels bleak and cavernous, as if walking through the jungle at night. "Ghandi, Dalai Lama, Your Lord & Savior J.C. / Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy" has a haunted aura, its droning synths and cold piano chords feel eerie.
Ultimately, "New Blue Sun" represents the next step in André's creative evolution, much like when he started producing OutKast songs under the name Earthtone III, when he added "3000" to his name to acknowledge the future, when he crafted The Love Below as a jazz-funk hybrid indebted to Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. Making "New Blue Sun" was therapeutic for him. He wants it to soothe you as well.
"It's therapeutic to be in that setting and playing and having to be fully in the moment", André says. "Don't think about the future, don't think about the past. There's something about knowing that this was created without any of the people knowing what was coming. It's just beautiful to hear a natural happening."