Album Review: André 3000, ‘New Blue Sun’

    When André 3000 announced his debut solo album just days before it was released, he knew people would be extremely quick to form an opinion. Of course he expected a wave of fan disappointment upon seeing the words “flute album,” which is also the only information a critic would need to write a thousand words about one of the most radically monumental musical departures in pop history. There have been many great ambient albums released in 2023, but none of them have to come with the label “Warning: no bars.” Deconxtextuazing New Blue Sun seems impossible, and there’s almost an obligation, 17 years and a handful of guest verses since Outkast released their last album, to try to illuminate its place as part of the rapper’s legendary legacy – given his bold eclecticism within a hip-hop framework, isn’t it natural that he would one day seek to evade it? But though he’s been spotted playing the flute in coffee shops and airports around the world, nothing could have prepared us for this 87-minute sound odyssey, and André is self-aware about it. He knows rap can encompass a wide range of subjects, but he’s choosing to lead a meditative track about an ayahuasca trip instead of rapping about having to get a colonoscopy. General artistic flexibility aside, this is the album he wanted to make, even if he has to be slightly apologetic about it: ‘I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time’ is the title of the first song.

    When I saw this and the rest of the album’s long and humorous song titles, I was worried André might be too self-aware and literal to really go where the music leads him – that it would take its clear reverence for new age, jazz, and ambient a little too lightly and too abstractly to be used as an expressive tool. That’s not the case. New Blue Sun is playful, but it’s also intuitive, deeply devotional, and delicately sincere in its emotionality; the framing is just a necessary excuse for the musicians to probe and teeter on. It’s not exactly a breeze to get through, but it’s a wondrous album that floats by pretty gently. For a record with so many expectations piled onto it, it’s unprovocative in a way that feels freeing, but never quite unassuming. It even takes three full minutes for André to chime in with his woodwind instrument on the opening track; percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Carlos Niño (who also co-produces) and keyboardist Surya Botofasina begin by building a solemn, almost mournful atmosphere, rippling and rattling with no real musical anchor. André’s presence doesn’t provide that, either, but its tentative simplicity has a way of both clearing the air and filling the room. This doesn’t happen often; André hangs around, sometimes at the center, but he doesn’t stay in one place.

    Assembled from jam sessions also featuring Nate Mercereau, Diego Gaeta, Mia Doi Todd, and others, New Blue Sun is an album that rewards you for listening closely but doesn’t really demand it. The band doesn’t always sound particularly locked-in, and their patient, expansive soundscapes come close to dissolving into the ether if you’re not willing to give them the right attention. That’s part of the music’s fluid and ephemeral nature. Yet it allows them to bask in the joy of meandering without drifting off too far, or to nudge toward the absurd in ways that could endear listeners that might otherwise have a difficult time with the project. This relaxed, spontaneous mode of contemplation is effectively condensed on the groovy ‘Ninety Three ’Til Infinity and Beyoncé’, and it also, more interestingly, teases confidence out of the performers, allowing them to bubble into chaos on the magnificent ‘BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears a 3000® Button Down Embroidered’. This isn’t soothing music designed for perfect breath control; it’s attuned to the disorientation that can occur in meditative practice, ominous synths rising like thoughts you must acknowledge, then let go of. André’s playing – sparse and surprisingly digital as it may – is as natural as breathing, but it’s only one part of a living organism by which we can feel alien and distracted.

    The way André interacts with his accompanists is a beautiful reflection of this complex relationship – and though the record seems to drift by without aiming for transcendence, you get the sense that something changes when he notices this in the music. New Blue Sun doesn’t follow a particular form or structure, but I hear the mood shifting in the three final tracks particularly – from self- to bodily awareness, from exploration to devotion, from the loose accumulation of sounds to a louder, more purposeful kind. I hear this as the musician fully embracing the sincerity he knows, from the start, some people would rather experience with a dose of irony. The album is at its best when it forgets it’s maybe just supposed to wander gorgeously for however long you’ll let it and instead reaches for the grand and sublime: ‘Ants to You, Gods to You’ glows with the familiar fuzziness of a late-night stroll, and it’s also capable of taking you entirely out of it. The closer, ‘Dreams Once Buried Beneath the Dungeon Floor Slowly Sprout Into Undying Gardens’, is both the most immersive and outstretched moment on the LP – and the band does, somehow, make it feel like a moment, buzzing with the opposite of resignation. There’s no way of knowing what André 3000 will do next as far as music is concerned, but this – for us just now bearing witness, at least – sounds like a place you’d like to stay in a little longer.

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