Over the last four years, sightings of André 3000 have become almost like a legend. These sightings usually follow a similar pattern: someone secretly captures footage of the Outkast icon playing a wooden double flute in a public setting, causing a frenzy on social media. It’s as if you catch a glimpse of Pan, the Greek god of nature, enjoying a solitary jam session at an outdoor yoga class in Philadelphia. He has also been spotted in coffee shops, on the streets of Tokyo, and at airports around the world.
André can often be found in Venice, California, where he lives when he is on the west coast. On a Friday afternoon in October, he can be seen playing his cedarwood Mayan instrument in the midst of organic cafes and high-end boutiques. Two camera operators are filming for a documentary about the making of his highly anticipated first solo album, New Blue Sun, which features celestial new age and meditative ambient music. The lunchtime patrons at the Michelin-recommended restaurant where he dines are thrilled to see him there.
André, with a rich and luxurious accent, compares his situation to the popular game of Where’s Waldo. As he joins me at a small table for our interview, he places his impressive Mesoamerican woodwind on a nearby ledge. He reflects on past experiences where people have spotted him playing his flute in unexpected places, such as the airport or Abbott Kinney Boulevard. He admits feeling caught off guard, as if he was caught “noodling around.” While he may have a film crew with him today, he typically prefers a more low-key lifestyle where he can go to Starbucks, take long walks, and play music without interruption. As he puts it, he never stops moving.
André Benjamin, a native of Atlanta, is fully aware that his journey to master the flute may seem unconventional. However, he is not joking about his dedication to the instrument. He has spent five years perfecting his skills and has now released eight tracks under the title New Blue Sun. These tracks were chosen from numerous recording sessions at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio. André, using a digital woodwind instrument, is joined by talented jazz and avant garde musicians from Los Angeles such as Carlos Niño, Nate Mercereau, Surya Botofasina, Matthewdavid, VCR, and others.
André’s exploration of jazz started with the influence of John Coltrane. Initially, he played the saxophone but eventually transitioned to Coltrane’s original instrument, the bass clarinet. This eventually led to him picking up the flute. According to André, there was a certain warmth and fluidity in the sound of woodwind instruments that resonated with him and felt like the perfect fit.
This is one of the most significant transformations in popular music history. The new album, New Blue Sun, does not contain any raps. The first song is titled “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a “Rap” Album But This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.” André expresses his understanding of how people will react, but he is excited to share it with genuine sincerity. He explains that he initially intended to make a rap album to please his fans, but he has now let go of that desire and instead embraced a more blissful spirit. This aligns with his mantra from 25 years ago on the Outkast track Liberation: “Now that’s liberation and, baby, I want it.”
“I had a passion for drawing and painting as a child and always envisioned attending art school,” he recalls. André is currently sporting pinstriped overalls typically worn by painters, paired with a camouflage shirt. A navy-blue beanie covers his greying hair. He maintains his unique style, reminiscent of the man who co-wrote “So Fresh, So Clean,” with round caramel glasses, turquoise shell necklaces, and a thick gold bracelet – imagine Dizzy Gillespie mixed with a love for surfing and abstract expressionism. “Even when I first started rapping, I never imagined I would venture into producing or creating an album as experimental as The Love Below in 2003,” he reflects, without any pretentiousness one would expect from an artist who has won seven Grammys (six with Outkast) and sold 20 million records. “I’m always curious to see where my path will lead. I’m witnessing it unfold as well. Although I may not completely leave rapping behind, this new direction felt genuine and worth sharing. It’s the most authentic thing I can do.”
It is impossible to disregard the anticipation for a solo album from André. There have been occasional rumors since the last Outkast album in 2006 about him working with well-known producers in the studio. However, he chose to focus on his acting career, appearing in multiple films and TV shows, such as a biopic about Jimi Hendrix and the well-received dramedy Showing Up. He also had other projects, including being the spokesperson for Gillette, creating and providing the voice for an Adult Swim cartoon called “Class of 3000”, and launching a short-lived clothing line inspired by 1930s Ivy League football called Benjamin Bixby.
Music was present when André and Beyoncé collaborated to cover Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black for the soundtrack of the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. In 2014, there was a reunion of Outkast, with André and Big Boi performing their top hits at over 40 festivals. In 2018, two songs were released on SoundCloud, with André playing bass clarinet and James Blake on piano. Occasionally, he would contribute an impressive guest verse on popular albums such as those by Drake, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West.
André reflected, “It was an enjoyable task to join in on other artists’ songs. It’s often simpler to join someone else’s celebration than to host your own. When there is a shift in sound and culture, all you can do is determine where you fit in. These artists kept me going, especially for the younger generation who may not be familiar with Outkast.”
When it comes to his individual music career, recognition and popularity became limiting factors for André. His stage name hints at the future, as anything less than groundbreaking would be considered a letdown. Outkast’s first four albums not only pioneered and defined southern hip-hop, but also pushed the boundaries of music itself. Outkast cannot be confined to one genre – their sound combines masterful rap storytelling with elements of soul, Afrofuturism, blues, rave, gospel, and funk. Although creative differences caused a rift between them – with André leaning towards eclectic guitar-based pop inspired by Prince and the Beatles, while Big Boi favored a harder fusion of hip-hop and classic soul-funk – Outkast still managed to become the most successful crossover rap group in history. Few albums have reached the level of mainstream success achieved by Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which spawned the hit single Hey Ya! that André performed in a bright green buckskin suit at the 2004 Grammys. That night, Outkast won three awards but never returned to the Grammys stage again.
What actions do you take if you have accomplished everything by the age of 30? According to André, as you age, integrity and aesthetics hold more significance than anything else. You come to understand that you won’t be here forever, so the decisions you make are based on what you leave behind. “New Blue Sun” is a work of beauty that holds more worth to me than rapping about my greatness or admiring a beautiful woman. These are human experiences, but I am trying to navigate a certain set of values.
This project came together relatively easily, but everything else has been challenging. After the disbandment of Outkast, André struggled with writer’s block, self-doubt, depression, social anxiety, and hypersensitivity disorders. In addition to these struggles, he also experienced the sudden loss of both of his parents within a year of each other – his mother in May 2013 and his father in February 2014. Finding a clear path forward has been difficult for a long time. He believes that in order to stay inspired, he must continue to try new things. He compares this approach to Picasso, who would switch between sculpting and painting in order to reach new levels of creativity. André’s goal is to always find wonder in his work.
The server inquires if André desires any sustenance, but he declines even a simple glass of water, stating that he has already eaten. His idiosyncrasies were satirized on the comedic sketch program Key & Peele, where André pranced into a café wearing a Swiss yodeler costume and requested a complex beverage served in a flower vase. In this scenario, his moderation appears almost monk-like.
The journey to New Blue Sun was sparked by a chance encounter with Niño, a venerable figure in LA’s experimental music scene, at a Venice supermarket. The composer, producer and percussionist invited André to a performance that night, at which Niño and friends played the music of Alice Coltrane. André had been listening to her all week and interpreted this as a sign. He arrived at soundcheck and stayed until the band left, taking photos with anyone who asked.
Niño, who acted as the primary assistant and unofficial producer of New Blue Sun, praises the artist for his extreme modesty. Despite being a source of inspiration for many of the musicians involved in the project, he remains humble and considers himself inexperienced in this field. This new venture may not fit into the traditional hip-hop genre, but it still showcases his signature style – incorporating elements such as breath control, originality, innovation, and artistic expression.
After the outbreak of the pandemic, André visited Niño’s garage studio in Canoga Park for two four-hour sessions with a trio and quartet. After six months, André contacted Niño to express his interest in pursuing their recorded music. They went on to record countless hours of music together. Niño then invited talented musicians from the LA experimental scene to join in.
Even though the wooden double flute is his usual instrument, André chose to use a digital wind instrument on New Blue Sun, which he was not familiar with. He explains, with laughter, that the music being played was only 20 minutes after he opened the instrument for the first time. He is still trying to explore its capabilities and it brings him a sense of joy and wonder, similar to a child experiencing bubbles for the first time.
He is showing humility. Though André is not a formally trained flautist from Juilliard, he possesses an innate musicality that cannot be taught by any instructor. This brings to mind the quote by John Coltrane: “You can play anything if you do it sincerely.” And this is not just a personal project. New Blue Sun showcases the influences of John and Alice Coltrane, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Laraaji, and Yusef Lateef. The music incorporates gongs, Moroccan three-stringed lutes, and André’s unique “panther toning” on the track titled “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.” This was inspired by an ayahuasca experience where he felt himself transforming into a panther and making involuntary sounds. André believes that if he had recorded it, it would have been amazing to listen to, and speculates that the psychedelic drug was using him as a “vibrating instrument.”
Although it may seem strange, he has found a sense of calm about the situation. “I had to come to terms with the fact that there may be resistance,” André explains. “But the joy I experienced while making it – my love for the music – was far greater than any fear.”
The questions about Outkast continue to persist. Despite never officially breaking up, the duo took different paths and their timeless music influenced the next generation of rap artists, such as Tyler, the Creator, Kendrick Lamar, and J Cole. Despite not working together, André and Big Boi maintain a close relationship. André describes it as “great” and mentions Big Boi’s excitement for his latest project. “Like any relationship, it’s about chemistry. Sometimes, you need a new approach to keep things interesting. He has been one of my closest friends since before we started rapping. I cannot predict the future or what will happen, but our journey is still ongoing.”
André starts his mornings with a five-mile walk. Then, he goes to his creative studio in El Segundo, where he does different artistic activities such as painting, sculpting, taking video calls, and sketching designs for his new company called A Myriad of Pyramids. His company aims to bring together all of his creative pursuits. He also plays the flute during the day and is currently in an apprenticeship to learn how to make the instrument. At night, he has recurring dreams, particularly one where he is floating through the air, which has been happening since the beginning of his career.
André expresses his constant amazement at the fact that he is able to fly. He is so enthralled by this ability that he eagerly wants to share it with his friends. Although he does not have wings, he is able to hover and travel to specific destinations. However, when attempting to demonstrate this to his friends, he is unsuccessful and remains unsure of the reason behind it.
Anyone can see the desires of an artist struggling with conflicting identities, without needing to be a psychologist. They are eager to express their profound moments, but fearful of being misunderstood. After enduring the weight of gravity for so long, you can now witness André defying it once more – if you are attentive enough, or happen to run into him outside.