When a record comes with a warning label, believe it.
That’s the case behind André 3000’s solo album debut, 17 years after the close of the recorded catalog of his Atlanta-based hip hop behemoth, Outkast. With this week’s announcement of André 3000’s surprise solo release, “New Blue Sun,” the album came with the label “Warning: no bars,” plus press notes stating that “New Blue Sun” is “an entirely instrumental album centered around woodwinds; a celebratory piece of work in the form of a living, breathing, aural organism.”’
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Uh-oh? I haven’t heard an excuse for a renowned artist’s major-label instrumental album like this since Lou Reed dropped the staticky white noise of “Metal Machine Music” on RCA in 1975.
Yes, 3000 has appeared as a guest on music from Beyoncé, James Blake, Drake and Frank Ocean since his time away from Outkast (who last worked together on a tour nearly a decade ago). But for his own solo album, there’s none of his usual wondrous vocal runs and sticky, rapier-fast raps, familiar to fans of 1996’s “ATLiens” or the Year 2000’s “Stankonia.” For his solo debut, André 3000 has crafted eight meditative, purely instrumental songs across 87 minutes, with only two tracks lasting under 10 minutes, all of it centered on his mastering of many different flutes and digital wind instruments.
Surely, he promised Epic a full-blown rap album somewhere down the line.
Then again, in the same way that André 3000 kept listeners on the edge of their seats as one half of the always-unpredictable OutKast, his solo debut is thrilling – if only you allow yourself to appreciate its influences and adapt to the sleepy but not always E-Z listening tonalities of “New Blue Sun.”
Reminiscent of the work of ominously atmospheric pianist Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane’s more spiritual sounds for the Impulse! label, or post-bop jazz flautist Yusef Lateef’s holiest works — yet awash with muted synthetic touches and fuzzily edited samples — “New Blue Sun” is a warm, gentle dreamscape. It is also one where 3000’s darkest nightmares are right around the corner and pushed to the fore.
Produced by California producer and percussionist Carlos Niño and featuring a stellar group of players renowned in healing music circles (Mia Doi Todd, Nate Mercereau, Surya Botofasina, Deantoni Parks, Matthewdavid, V.C.R, Diego Gaeta, Jesse Peterson), each of the album’s eight tracks have its own sense of breath. Some songs yawn, others whistle, occasionally they hum and blow.
In particular, Mercereau’s swirls of guitar synth and frazzled, edgy live samples, along with Botofasina’s subtly stringed synthesizer sounds, act as vaporous background to André’s digital whispers, mood-swing Maya flute and the tactile tone of bamboo instrumentation. An array of clanging chimes and banging cymbals add punctuation to Dre’s windy wonder – an album where every little nook, cranny and noise matters.
Each title on “New Blue Sun” is slightly more dramatic than the sound that it inhabits. “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time” starts off as processional and solemn with its deconstructed digital wind sounds played backwards and twinkling bell percussion. At the three-minute mark, a different, hot winded melody enters the picture, a baronial voice, to change the track’s direction into something gently detuned.
“That Night in Hawaii When I Turned Into a Panther and Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn’t Control … Sh¥t Was Wild” features gurgling watery ambience behind 3000’s slow-moving flute and its ancient Asian chord structure. Before the song’s end, its mood shifts with the introduction of door-knocking percussion and a funky new melody that lasts until a muted cymbal crash near its finale. “BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter Wears a 3000® Button Down Embroidered” also finds closure through an alarming set of sounds – an ominous synth squelch and an ascending faux-trumpet’s blare.
Lest you think that the cleverly-titled “Ninety Three ’Til Infinity and Beyoncé” is grooving and upbeat, it is the album’s most steadily somnolent and hauntingly lovely track, one with little movement, save for an undulating synth swirl and its roaming flute toots. “Ghandi, Dalai Lama, Your Lord & Savior J.C. / Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy,” too, is peaceful and tonic.
As its two final tracks (“Ants to You, Gods to Who?” and “Dreams Once Buried Beneath the Dungeon Floor Slowly Sprout Into Undying Gardens”) play out, there is one epiphany on top of another with their clutter of cymbal crashes and hammered Fender Rhodes and flutes, organic and digital. With that, “New Blue Sun” is ecstatic and dreamy, even when, at the times, its sounds are ferocious and fearful.
If André 3000 wasn’t going to release a chattering, rap-filled hip-hop album this time out, “New Blue Sun” may count as that theoretical project’s intriguing instrumental equal.
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