Last week, André Benjamin, best known as André 3000, one-half of the hip-hop duo OutKast, finally released his début solo album. Over the past decade, Benjamin, who is forty-eight, has chosen a life away from the spotlight, but has stayed close enough to it to occasionally record a guest verse. His last headlining release was “Look Ma No Hands,” an EP of turbulent jazz compositions he uploaded for free to SoundCloud on Mother’s Day, in 2018. Mostly, he’s been a presence on the social-media feeds of fans, who’ve happened upon him doing everyday things, like fetching coffee or walking in the park. More often than not, his companion is a flute, which he plays with a kind of blissful ignorance to his surroundings.
That Benjamin has seemed a reclusive mystery since OutKast’s heyday says more about our expectations for the famous, for whom performative oversharing is now part of any new-release cycle, than the choices he’s made. And his new album, “New Blue Sun,” is definitely a choice. There’s no singing or rapping, as he forewarns on the lead track, which is titled “I Swear, I Really Wanted To Make A ‘Rap’ Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time.” Instead, the record is nearly an hour and a half of deeply soothing instrumental music on which he plays a variety of woodwinds. The flute, he’s explained, is a way to commune with the air around him, to experience the sensation of breath, as well as a coping mechanism for social anxiety. Beyond that, he feels as though he’s run out of things to rap about. In an interview about his formal return, he said the contours of middle-aged life couldn’t coalesce into bars: he felt rapping about his life now—colonoscopies, worsening eyesight—seemed ill-advised.
Most people would happily listen to him rap about such things. But fans know him well enough to recognize that he’s beyond doing things just to do them. He and Antwan Patton, also known as Big Boi, his partner in OutKast, never would have made it beyond their southwest Atlanta neighborhood if they’d been overly conscious of expectation. In the early nineties, when hip-hop was synonymous with New York and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, success was a far-fetched dream for a pair of kids from the South. But OutKast became one of the most exhilarating rap duos ever, a shape-shifting marvel, pimps one moment and aliens the next, streetwise but with their eyes to the cosmos, righteous yet conscious of their own contradictions. They felt a true partnership, teen-age friends whose contrasting voices and styles both challenged and complemented one another. In 2003, “Hey Ya!”—a garage-pop gem that was essentially an André 3000 solo track—turned OutKast into an inescapable cultural phenomenon. Their last album together was “Idlewild,” released in 2006, the companion to a trippy, overlooked film of the same name set in a postmodern, Depression-era juke joint. In 2014, they briefly reunited for an underwhelming performance at Coachella.
OutKast has never felt irrelevant because their lineage has remained so clear. Big Boi has continued recording and touring, and artists like Future and Killer Mike are associated with the Dungeon Family, the loose Atlanta collective of rappers, producers, and singers that includes OutKast. The duo’s iconoclasm lives on in the storytelling approaches of Frank Ocean or Kendrick Lamar, the attitude and flamboyance of Tyler, the Creator; Lil Yachty; or Teezo Touchdown. There’s rarely been a sense of acrimony between Patton and Benjamin, just deviating ambitions. One of Benjamin’s most notable recent appearances was as an actor in Kelly Reichardt’s 2022 film “Showing Up,” a quiet, absorbing meditation on art and creative process. Benjamin plays Eric, a ceramicist, whose chill, fastidious vibe is balm-like amid the film’s petty rivalries and under-the-surface tensions. “He just plays this flute whenever he’s not working,” Reichardt said in an interview. “That was kind of a soundscape for a lot of shooting.” One day, he let the film crew record as he played in a field, and Reichardt used some of those sounds in the film. She remembered his enthusiasm and curiosity as he became immersed in ceramics while preparing for the role. “Aw, man, clay,” she recalled him texting her after a day spent practicing for his part. “I knew I’d be interested in this.”
We would all be lucky to have so many interests, and also the time and inclination to explore them. “New Blue Sun” is the product of Benjamin’s life in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past few years. It draws on the overlapping local scenes that explore the intersection of devotional music, jazz, and ambient experimentation. There is, typical of the industry nowadays, a limited edition on vinyl. But it’s a modest album that asks for little beyond our time and attention.
The tracks are largely improvised. Many of them are built upon the synths of Surya Botofasina, a keyboardist who studied with Alice Coltrane, later known as Swamini Turiyasangitananda, at her ashram in the Santa Monica mountains. (Botofasina’s 2022 album “Everyone’s Children” feels like a spiritual predecessor to “New Blue Sun.”) Carlos Niño, a respected composer and bandleader, contributes bells, chimes, and percussion. Nate Mercereau, as capable of liberated shredding as ambient, feedback-drenched howls—he once recorded a “duet” with the Golden Gate Bridge—plays guitar. Benjamin is not a virtuosic flautist, and he’s described the album as a document of discovery. The Roland Aerophone Pro AE-30, a digital wind instrument that appears throughout the project, is something that Benjamin started playing just days before the album was recorded. On the opening track, it takes a couple of minutes for him to join the fray, and when he begins playing it sounds tentative and exploratory. His presence is often playful, ornamental. On “Ninety Three ’Til Infinity And Beyoncé,” a simple, lurching synth line repeats as Benjamin’s woodwinds wend and weave their way around it.
For all its associations with peace and stasis, ambient or New Age music often still aspires to be disruptive, if only to reorient our perspective, our sense of time. Sometimes epiphany arrives when a motif repeats so often that a slight change feels radical and transcendent. It’s not hard for this ensemble to sound good together—Botofasina’s euphoric, shifting layers of synth mean that “New Blue Sun” is, at a baseline level, quite beautiful. It is more of a challenge to evoke feeling, to arrest the listener, and Benjamin’s ensemble occasionally reaches those celestial highs. “BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears a 3000Ⓡ Shirt Embroidered” begins with Benjamin’s flute exploring spooky terrains, and the group sounds as if it’s playing something generically ritualistic. But four minutes in, the synth surges to the front, and then again a few minutes later, cresting in an ecstatic dirge reminiscent of Coltrane’s great devotional music.