André 3000, “That Night in Hawaii When I Turned Into a Panther and Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn't Control... That Sh¥t Was Wild” (Epic)

Now that the novel sensation and social-media hubbub of an über-popular rapper releasing a flute-centric New Age/ambient-jazz album have subsided, it's time for a sober assessment of André 3000's New Blue Sun, the OutKast MC's first new music since 2017's “All Together Now”—a baffling cover of one of the Beatles' corniest songs. 

But first let's note that in terms of deviations from stylistic norms by popular artists, it's hard to think of a more radical one in recent times than André 3000's (Diplo going "country" doesn't count, as he's always had a chameleonic creative approach). And in the heavily purist world of hip-hop, indulging in such drastic tangents as New Blue Sun is rare. The last one that comes to mind is Lil Yachty's lukewarm "psych-rock" diversion from earlier this year, Let's Start Here. (As someone who's been listening to that genre for over five decades, I have to say that Yachty's album is about as psychedelic as a glass of water.)

As an experiment and artistic left turn, New Blue Sun is much more successful than Let's Start Here. You could say that with regard to the potential damage to his musical career, New Blue Sun is a riskier undertaking than even Stevie Wonder's Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants, which still featured the Motown superstar's vocals, albeit in more unconventional settings. But what unites André and Stevie is that both musicians had more than earned the right to zoom out of their respective comfort zones and go where their whims dictated.

With no rapping or singing from Dré, even the staunchest OutKast fans might balk at the 87 minutes of meditative improvisations Mr. Benjamin lavishes over eight languorous tracks—which are the polar opposite of "B.O.B." Instead, he plays an assortment of flutes—contrabass, Mayan, bamboo—as well as some digital wind instruments. Collaborators include some of America's headiest musicians: percussionist Carlos Niño, keyboardist/Alice Coltrane disciple Surya Botofasina, "mycelium electronics" expert Matthewdavid, and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Nate Mercereau, among others. There are no leaders here, per se, just a squad dedicated to generating exquisite tones and alleviating the chronic stresses of 21st-century life.

In an interview with NPR, André admitted that he doesn't know notes, chords, or keys; he's going on sheer instinct here. But, uncommon for a rapper of his renown, Dré checked his ego at the studio door and also displayed the good sense to surround himself with players who do know that stuff. Together, they often steer New Blue Sun into sublimely contemplative territory. Even though André's frequently been spotted in public playing flute during his LA peregrinations, it's safe to say that most people didn't expect him to issue a record dominated by that instrument.  

Kicking off with the 12-minute "I Swear, I Really Wanted To Make A 'Rap' Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time," the album immediately submerges you into calm waters. (The wordy titles seem like overcompensating for the lack of bars.) You can feel your pulse rate slowing within seconds of its murky and desolate ambience seeping into your headphones—which is the best way to hear this music. Dré's flute is a wispy, tranquil presence in the background, gently ululating behind ASMR keyboard smears, belltree shaking, and cymbal taps and splashes. That "I Swear..." has racked up nearly 4.3 million streams on $p0t1fy in under two weeks proves how curious folks are to hear this surprising development. 

"BuyPoloDisorder's Daughter Wears a 3000™ Button Down Embroidered" is pure weird-dream-state haze, akin to Fourth World music innovator Jon Hassell at his most serene and sparse. "Ninety Three 'Til Infinity And Beyoncé," by far the shortest track here at 3:49, doesn't sound at all like Souls of Mischief, but instead lows, caws, drones, and drips like a rain-forest mini symphony. It's apropos that the music on "Ghandi [sic], Dalai Lama, Your Lord & Savior J.C. / Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy" is as eventful as its title and the most agitated piece on New Blue Sun. It contains passages that will jar you out of your reverie, though it's still fairly chill. 

My pick to click is “That Night in Hawaii When I Turned Into a Panther and Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn't Control... That Sh¥t Was Wild,” as it evokes the noctilucent jazz of Hassell's late-career masterpiece, Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street. Inspired by an ayahuasca trip in that state, this track possesses André's most impressive flute extemporizing, fluttering in imaginative and unexpected patterns over bass (or frame-drum) throbs and clacking percussion from Deantoni Parks. The sense of purpose and rhythmic propulsion also distinguish this track from its counterparts, which are predominantly static. "That Night..." could serve as an alternate soundtrack for those suspenseful boat rides to the heart of darkness in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now

If after digesting New Blue Sun you want to dig deeper into the world of exploratory flute, seek out recordings by Eric Dolphy, Jeremy Steig, Yusef Lateef, Bobbi Humphrey, Björn J:Son Lindh, Hubert Laws, Herbie Mann (especially Stone Flute), and Joël Vandroogebroeck and Carole Muriel's recently reissued 1978 album, Images of Flute in Nature

Ultimately, New Blue Sun will likely resonate more with ambient/cosmic-jazz aficionados than with even the most adventurous hip-hop heads. Consequently, André may lose more listeners than he gains with this gambit, but what's the point of being a multimillionaire artist if you don't give free rein to your most outré impulses? 

Let's leave the final words to André Benjamin, who's set a sterling example for other wildly popular artists to follow: "New Blue Sun is the continuation of discovery for me. My entire career has been fueled by this and it is the only thing that keeps me honest. This album is the most honest and interesting offering I can give today. I never could have imagined in high school, when I started rapping and doing music that I would be here right now playing wind instruments. Ha. This life ride always surprises me. I’m here for it."

*New Blue Sun didn't hit my inbox this or any other week, as it was a stealth release. But it has been haunting streaming services since November 17 and I've been absorbing it ever since, because it marks a rare incursion into the mainstream by cerebral chillout music. This column will return to its regular protocol next week.