On 14 November a shock rang through fans of popular music unlike any I’ve ever seen. André 3000, member of hip-hop duo Outkast and widely renowned as one of the best rappers to ever live, announced that he would release a new album in three days. He did this via an interview with NPR. There was no single attached. And the album wouldn’t feature him rapping, or vocals of any kind. He would play the flute, or rather, flutes of different types.
Now it’s arrived, it’s clear this is no joke, nor is it an artist overextending, or producing a facsimile of something they like. Rather, New Blue Sun is a thoroughly legitimate fusion of spiritual ambient and alt-jazz, that’s fascinating for its fearlessness, as well as being one of the most extreme artistic pivots in modern music.
André Benjamin has contributed guest raps to other people’s projects over the years, most recently on Killer Mike’s album from this year, Michael. But on this, his first official solo album, he’s completely left it behind, in favour of instrumental improvisations adding up to almost 90 minutes.
He’d been playing flute for years when a chance encounter connected him with percussionist and jazz stalwart Carlos Niño. They began to jam with Surya Botofasina, a keyboardist mentored by Alice Coltrane, and guitarist Nate Mercereau, and started recording these sessions around a year ago.
Track one opens the album in an almost apologetic way, titled, ‘I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a “Rap” Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time’. The song names are as verbose as the music is not, and in that interview with NPR, Benjamin says he has worked on hip-hop over the years, but it was this music that he really wanted people to hear.
What’s been interesting is that, because of who he is, a lot of people are suddenly very excited about abstract, formless, minimalist soundscapes. Social media came alive with people clocking their listens, and I can’t help but wonder how many had even encountered sounds like this before.
Over the last few years Benjamin has been repeatedly photographed in public holding a flute of some description. He acknowledges it became something of a joke. Director Kelly Reichardt included his flute playing on the soundtrack to her film Showing Up, because, she says, it was the soundtrack while filming.
Benjamin has a small role in the movie, and to quote Reichardt, he would “walk around playing his flute all the time”. Showing Up is set in the art world, and rather than a cursory glance at the kilns she had sent him to check out, he spent days using them, moulding clay. When he wasn’t doing that, or playing the flute, he would make drawings.
“He’s interested,” she stresses, and while I think it would be easy to be interested if you didn’t have to worry about working a nine to five, very few people this prominent would be bold enough to head in this direction.
In 2003 the Outkast song ‘Hey Ya’ showed the group swerving into retro pop. It was written by André 3000 when he first learned to play the guitar - the first three chords he’d been taught became the song.
Twenty years on his sense of musical adventure makes sense, but it’s intriguing that he landed on, and stuck with, the flute. In his NPR interview he mentions having flutes from Thailand, China, Korea, and Africa. He said he likes the instrument for being the closest to a human voice.
My experience listening to New Blue Sun is still largely disbelief, that the man involved in many of my favourite hip-hop tracks made something that sounds like this, and made it with such conviction.
It’s a thoroughly collaborative record, with Benjamin’s contributions just part of the overall concoction, but if you’ve followed his career, you’ll definitely feel his essence shining through.
As he told NPR, “I've been on the ride and people have been on a ride with me. I see this as just [being] further down the road.”