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The Joy of Flautin’ It: Living in the Light of André 3000’s Fresh Azure Rays

Embracing the new blue flute-centrism of a former Outkast can assist those desirous of a life that proceeds smoothly
He flauts in line for vegan takeout, and in laundromats, and Ubers. André 3000 flauts it here, flauts it there, and flauts it for all he's worth absolutely everywhere. (Credit: Emma McIntyre via Getty Images)

André 3000 has a serious predilection for flutes. He owns 40 from different countries and cultures and recently spoke to NPR about flauting in moving Ubers, and in laundromat alleyways during dryer waits, and while wandering cities like a pied piper.

He spoke of flauting in line for vegan takeout, and in airports during layovers and delays. He spoke of playing while strolling boardwalks on west coast beachfronts, and though he didn’t speak of flauting while parked on the porcelain, why not, it’s free time and the love is there.

It would seem that these days André just wants to hang out and play the flute, if that’s ok. And let’s let it be, as he’s finally broken his self-imposed creative hiatus with an 87-minute, flute-driven, active-ambient soundscape album called New Blue Sun.

Evaluations aside, let it be said: This is a music no rapper of André’s caliber has ever made anything resembling, so big-ups to the man for simply swinging the bat. Going from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic-ian to post-new age flautist in public is a treacherous strut along a high and narrow path—but for the guy who wrote “Hey Ya” in 15 minutes on an acoustic, without knowing guitar, the ascent from GOAT-level MC to session-worthy woodwindist was probably no Everest.

The future flautist with Big Boi (right) and a Caddy (behind) in Outkast, 1990. (Credit: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images)

That André however, the one who sold 20M records and won 6 Grammys with Outkast, is nowhere to be found on New Blue Sun. The album has no hooks or verses, verbal nor musical, and next-to-no infectious melodies to hum. Most songs (only two of which are under 10 minutes), are simply ‘there,’ alive unto themselves, evolving collages of sonic ephemera hovering in place for observation. This lessens nothing, though; stars, streams and breezes live similar lives, and all are fascinating when meditated upon.

Drums in whole kit form aren’t in the house either. They visit the first track in spatters, not patterns, and don’t return until the album’s end. In their place are crates of percussive miscellanea—shaker eggs, windchimes, bell-straps, mallet toys, knocker sticks, maraca things, jingle-janglers, finger cymbals. Swirling and swelling around these are warm, wavy true-analog synths like those in Radiohead Kid A-Mnesiac-era intros and interludes. Guitars and flutes both clean and processed fill out the sound, and thus shines the full azure Sun.

For those who’ve trod the mosaicked path of explorative jazz, the album’s influences are obvious: Some modernized, pacified Pharoah Sanders; Brian Eno gone busier and buzzier; Sun Ra, minus the fried-and-flying Arkestra frenzies. Hiroshi Yoshimura’s environmental music is a certain first-cousin. André cites Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, and he has definitely heard Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda a few times. All of the above are referenced well and originally on New Blue Sun, most in a manner more immediately accessible than their own abstractionist works.

Producing the LP is Venice Beach music scene pater Carlos Niño, also the album’s main percussionist, who ran sessions as he does for his Niño & Friends collective: Lay out some instruments, call over some players, push the red button and go. For Niño and Friends, Carlos then chops and builds the captured jams into records, though the extent to which this happens on New Blue Sun—that is, how much of the record is playing playing and how much is pastiche—is unknown. It might enrich the experience knowing Andre’s chops, though music need not be understood to be enjoyed.

Alice Coltrane next to her shrine to her guru, Satya Sai Baba. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fellow Californians Nate Mercereau and Surya Botofasina contribute guitars and keys, respectively, but with instruments running through plenty of effects and tracked in stratums of layers, it can be tough to tell who’s playing what, or even what instrument is what. (Live shows should pull the curtain back, and yes, it’s been promised, concerts are coming.) When André’s parts can be identified, his flute game is found to be sharp and solid—well-enunciated notes with decisive tones, deft phrasing and spot-on timing.

Still an inexperienced group player, André does show an inborn knack for instrumental conversation and picks his spots well, running short phrases while toying with syllabic inflections and extending runs without obstructing other players. He once played sax on The Love Below’s “She Lives in My Lap”, although that wasn’t this, those were just sounds. On New Blue Sun it feels what he intends to say with the flute is actually being said, in full statements, at times spoken like a quintessential 90s new-age tribal flautist. You know the kind I mean…

…that maybe-Native American guy in the mall kiosk, wolf-on-a-cliff tapestry hung behind him. Ponytail braided, eyes pressed closed, breathing wild-eagle passion through a handmade, wood-burned flute. The guy selling CDs with PC clip-art, tiny twine-wound Kachina dolls, three-for-a-dollar incense cones and feathered, beaded dreamcatchers. Some mystic, radiant whiff of that grand Amerind soul flows through André’s lungs, an endearing innocence that emits positivity and naturally draws encouragement from passersby. 

The pipe of love: a man flauts as a couple have sex behind him at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, 1970. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Digital wind instruments are also featured on New Blue Sun, devices that Mister 3000 discovered shortly before the start of recording and spent all sessions tinkering with. Esoteric free-jazz deity and current 99-year old leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Marshall Allen, plays similar synth-flutes in group improv atmospheres, though where André still trades in tentative flickers, Allen is known to transmute flutters into masterful, mad flailing (Just as he always has on brass….buckle up!)

Would I put it on to do dishes, clean house, or fold laundry by? I already have, and it was dope. Spotify typically spoon-feeds me my music for doing chores, although I’d much rather get sounds of the sort from the bright, highly-lovable guy from Outkast. Who wouldn’t? New Blue Sun would also be a choice soundtrack for hooking up—especially Track 2 (c’mon, read the title), with its random pleasure-sighs and hitched breathing sounds, extending through Track 3, with those odd purring noises and deep exhales. Pure libido language.

What can the amorphous New Blue Sun do to a listener’s feelings? Can it instantly arouse powerful emotions like history’s greatest music can? Probably not. Sentiments do arise when certain chords meet, however none soar the heart or draw tears; at the most they may adjust one’s mood, and here, the album’s greatest value is revealed—New Blue Sun won’t wallop your day, but it’s the perfect soundtrack for zoning out doing stuff. And who can’t use an effective way to mute that bastard inner voice and overcome the wrenching tedium of menial tasks?

New Blue Sun could be great for yoga and meditation, or as a sleep aid, though for this brain it’s all too lively. Sonically speaking, quite a few songs are packed pretty tight, and even with their long run times could use more open air to stretch and breathe. Similar jazz tracks with better elbow room include “Lonely Fire” and “The Little Blue Frog” from Miles Davis’ Big Fun LP, both quality free-fusion specimens for those rattled by the wrath and bedlam of Miles’ Bitches Brew.

New Blue Sun is a year-round helper, perfect to shovel snow by this winter, then decompress and do yardwork to next spring. For horticultural city dwellers like myself, it’s a calming listen while watering my legion of rare succulents, indoor palms, and exotic cactii (doing so slowly and gently, with a specialized bottle, so as to not flush out soil nutrients). It’s also been a surefire way to escape the cacophonic hell of the lawless and unsane New York subway system.

Avant garde flute can ameliorate subway commutes. (Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Listening to the record as I wrote seemed to ease the process. It also drew strange birds to my window that don’t exist in Brooklyn. Whether wayward migrant swallows lured from flocks bound for Florida or exotic parakeets on the lam from luxe condos, they were talking with the album through the glass, and as of yesterday, still were. It does sort of make sense actually, André has real avian vibes to his playing.

All said and done, for even semi-adventurous ears New Blue Sun is absolutely worth a listen. For full appreciation however, it needs your time, and unfortunately, between sleep, work and family demands, many of us might not even have the time or living environment to really enjoy it. Even many 3K diehards, attention spans cremated by social media, won’t even make it two minutes in without hitting skip and riding the almighty algorithm off into the infinite digital dusk.

Some OG hip-hop fans won’t even press play, burnt on the concept of rappers with instruments by years of poser-ific FM rap-rock, a genre packed with bands so shite I refuse to list names, lest mine be caught in any metadata related to their mention and Google somehow misconstrue that I chose to write about them. The fact is, rap-rock sucks easily, easier than most music—though MCs with guitars can be even worse.

Little Wayne’s dalliance with electric guitar is a brutal lesson in accepting life’s limits, one that proves no one he knows really tells him the truth. When given a guitar by Bob Marley’s family, DJ Khaled acted a total schmo, displaying zero respect for fine hardwoods , and seemed to take himself seriously while doing it. Jay-Z did hold a Stratocaster at Glastonbury ‘08 while warble-moaning “Wonderwall” as a Noel troll (except he was wise enough, and kind enough, to keep the thing unplugged). 

It does actually work for some. The Beastie Boys—fathers of “Sabotage”, the absolute vertex of rappers-with-instruments—did it all career long. Post Malone is legit on an ax, Mac Miller was (keys as well), and André changed the damn game with “Hey Ya”. Flavor Flav somehow glides on piano and slaps on bass, and Scarface of the Geto Boys strums acoustic Pink Floyd like a legit summer camp counselor.

André also played some sweet guitar on Outkast’s “Prototype” … maybe more “Hey Ya”’s are gestating somewhere inside that gifted cerebrum? Given the title of New Blue Sun’s first track he still has a will for the mic. In the meantime, if “music to do stuff by” isn’t your thing, no problem. André won’t mind, he isn’t asking to be noticed. He isn’t even here to talk. He just wants to hang out and play the flute.