Andre 3000 has returned with a new record called New Blue Sun… only, instead of rapping he’s playing the flute.
Since iconic rap duo Outkast went on hiatus in 2006, fans have been clamoring for a solo album from Andre 3000. Now, 17 years later, he’s finally delivered with a new record called New Blue Sun… only, instead of rapping he’s playing the flute.
KEXP’s Dusty Henry shares his reflections on why the album is one of his favorites of 2023 and how Andre 3000’s direction into ambient/New Age music might be the calming salve we need for our current times.
What’s your favorite album of the year? KEXP is asking listeners to vote for their favorite records in our Best of 2023 countdown. Vote now at KEXP.org and tune in December 15th to hear what albums made the list.
Read a transcript of this piece below.
For the last few weeks, I’ve had a constant hum underneath my daily life. The sound of my favorite rapper playing the flute.
You’ve probably heard about this by now. It’s the long awaited solo debut of Andre 3000 – one-half of the greatest hip-hop group all-time, Outkast. Andre was always beautifully out of step with his peers – even out of step with everyone on the planet. When he added the “3000” to his name during the release of Outkast’s Stankonia album, released in the year 2000, it was meant to signify a look toward the future. While we were all worrying about Y2K, he was dreaming further down the timeline. That’s always been felt in his work as well. Whether it was introducing a melodic flow in his rhymes…
Or writing a full-on pop song Andre has never played by anyone’s rules. And certainly he wasn’t going to be confined by genre. Outkast’s landmark run from 1992 through 2006 is legendary. Outkast’s other remarkable half, Big Boi, immediately got to work on a solo career. Since then, fans (including myself) have been impatiently waiting for Andre’s return. He’d occasionally drop an immaculate feature on songs for Drake or Frank Ocean over the years. Even when Outkast briefly reunited in 2014, still no new music.
Andre’s influence has only grown since Outkast’s hiatus. Rumors have routinely circulated if an Andre solo album would ever come. After 17 years, we finally got one – just not in the way we expected. But given his track record, maybe we should have expected the unexpected.
For years, we’d see glimpses on social media of Andre 3000 playing the flute. Nothing he personally posted, but random encounters from fans finding him playing on the street in random cities across the country. As much as we’ve all wanted a new album, it was heartwarming to see Andre looking happy and content with his flute. But what seemed like a hobby from the outside looking in was actually a blossoming new artistic direction.
Just a few weeks ago, Andre surprised the world with the release of his first ever solo album, New Blue Sun. There’s no rapping on the album. When the physical edition come out, it will have a sticker on it saying “Warning: No bars.” In fact, we don’t hear Andre’s voice at all. Only flute.
Andre isn’t alone on the album. The record is co-produced and co-performed by Carlos Niño, a fixture of Los Angele’s ambient, new age, and experimental jazz scenes. Together they brought in other heavyweights of modern ambient – Alice Coltrane disciple Surya Botofasina, jazz guitarist Nate Mercereau, and MatthewDavid of the highly influential all-genre label Leaving Records. If you’re wondering why Andre 3000 is putting out an ambient flute record and not a rap album, look no further than the song’s first track, titled, "I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a 'Rap' Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.”
As Andre has shared in interviews with NPR and numerous other outlets, he really did try to write a rap album. But he’s found himself in a season in life where the rhymes just weren’t coming, at least nothing he felt like he wanted to put out. But he says when he recorded New Blue Sun, he said he was overcome by the feeling that this was something he wanted people to hear.
It’s a huge artistic leap, but not unprecedented – especially the leap to ambient music. Brian Eno was making flashy rock records he recorded Ambient 1: Music for Airports. David Sylvian of the 80s new wave band Japan has now spent most of his career in the ambient sphere. And more recently, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner threw herself into the woooms and aaahs of ambient when she recorded the soundtrack for the video game Sable.
All came to it for their own reasons. But I can understand the overarching, innate draw of the genre. At its core, ambient music is a mode to express when words fail you. For an artist like Andre who describes going through a creative rut (or maybe creative existential crisis), it makes sense to find refuge in music that’s improvisational and amorphous. And the process of creating the album with other musicians sounds like it allowed Andre the space to let go and let the art steer him. New Blue Sun is billed as an Andre solo album, but really it’s a communal effort. A way for his friends to gather around him and help him let go and just express.
While he doesn’t rap or sing on the album, the track titles do tell incredible stories within themselves. Not just that first track I mentioned earlier. There’s also "That Night in Hawaii When I Turned into a Panther and Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn't Control ... Shit Was Wild" and also "Dreams Once Buried Beneath the Dungeon Floor Slowly Sprout into Undying Gardens.” The titles might be playful or even funny, but it helps tell the story of where Andre’s at and where he’s been. They’re both poetry within themselves and in complement to the music.
I put New Blue Sun on for the first time the night that it dropped. Seeing the hour and a half long runtime and the fact that it was an ambient flute record, I assumed I’d start it up and shortly fall asleep. Instead, I laid awake in bed – inspired. I was excited and curious to hear the record, but I didn’t expect it to grab hold of me the way that it did. When it finished, I queued it back up again.
While I listened, I read his interviews. His struggles to meet others expectations. The wanting to create but not being happy with what he was making. The letting go and letting the wind take him in a new direction.
It’s hard to talk about ambient or new age music without talking about peace or healing. I suppose there are worse connotations to have. Since 2020 and shit perpetually hitting the fan since, I’ve turned to ambient music more and more for solace in this hectic world. At a certain point, it feels cliche to keep calling the stresses of our modern times. But also, sometimes it feels like we don’t talk about it enough. At least not in a meaningful way. We exited (but not really exited) a global pandemic without any real conclusion.
The amount of global catastrophes we’ve sat through while continuing to work and go about our lives are staggering. Maybe the world hasn’t really gotten any worse than it was, but we’ve become more aware. And that’s a lot to hold in our minds and bodies. That’s all before we weigh in the personal struggles we all deal with. I worry constantly about the world my daughter will grow up in – the helplessness I feel trying to shield her from it and make things better. When you see school shootings and hospital bombings on the news routinely, its hard on the soul. And on top of this all there’s work to be done, dishes to be washed, and creativity to try and nurture. If I’m being honest, most days I feel physically and emotionally exhausted. I don’t say that for pity, but because I know I’m not alone in feeling it. Such is life in 2023.
And maybe that’s why I’ve drawn so close to New Blue Sun. To be clear, I don’t think ambient music has any magical power to make all this go away. But it sets the stage to relax your mind, let go, drift, and process. That goes for the artists making the music too. When I listen to New Blue Sun, I hear and feel Andre and his band losing themselves into the music.
I’ve looped the album constantly since it dropped, taking breaks for my daughter’s requests for Daniel Tiger and Winnie The Pooh (kings of tranquility in their own right, I might add). I’ve listened at my desk, on my walks. I’ve even put it on quietly in my headphones while on work meetings. I’ve tried to live with the album, to be consumed by it. The album hasn’t solved any of my problems or worries, but it’s quiet serenity has helped me find some calm through it all.
Hearing someone else chase their peace helps me feel some of my own. It makes me want to try new things, to let the wind blow me in another direction. New Blue Sun was one of the biggest surprises of 2023. But it’s biggest surprise wasn’t just that we got an Andre 3000 album or that he’s playing the flute. It’s the surprise of what happens when we allow ourselves let go, feel everything, and open ourselves up to another way forward.