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André 3000 opens up about 'New Blue Sun,' his daring new solo album

The result of the improvised sessions that led to <em>New Blue Sun</em> is subtle but daring. Mainly because it flies in the face of everything we've come to expect, and selfishly demand, as André 3000 fans.
Kai Regan
Courtesy of the artist
The result of the improvised sessions that led to New Blue Sun is subtle but daring. Mainly because it flies in the face of everything we've come to expect, and selfishly demand, as André 3000 fans.

Updated November 17, 2023 at 10:07 AM ET

At a certain point in the winding lifespan of André 3000's musical journey, there came a time when we as fans began to worry less about his lack of creative output and more about his general well-being. He'd ascended pop's mountaintop as the outrageous half of OutKast, the best-selling hip-hop duo of all time. Then, without much explanation, he bowed out. He grieved the loss of three parents (mom, dad and stepdad) in a decade's time. And, for years, the only glimpse we got into his state of mind were the random guest verses he'd kill at will or the doubly random social media sightings of him inexplicably playing flute while wandering the Earth solo.

Catching him in the act became a game overzealous fans played — like some hip-hop version of Where's Waldo? — almost against his wishes. But he was also "in on the joke," he assures me. "I laugh at it because my homies in Atlanta, we'll talk and they'll be like, 'Man, you know n***** think you crazy to f*** around with this flute."

Maybe he was preparing us for what was to come all along.

For the first time in over 17 years, André 3000 is releasing an album of new music. New Blue Sun — announced Nov. 14 via NPR and released Friday, Nov. 17 — is a stunning 87-minute mind-bender, minimalist and experimental, tribal and transcendent.

One thing it is not, however, is a rap record: No bars, no beats, no sub-bass. André doesn't sing on this joint, either. What he does do is play flute, and plenty of it — contrabass flute, Mayan flutes, bamboo flutes — along with other digital wind instruments. In place of lyrics, he offers eight provocative song titles, the first of which almost reads like a lowkey apology, with a wink of irony: "I swear, I Really Wanted To Make A 'Rap' Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time."

The painstaking standard André 3000 set may have made it harder to entertain himself in the years post-OutKast, but so has the thought of chasing his tail. Even without a solo rap album in his catalog, he's consistently ranked among the greatest of all time. Like Coltrane reaching for new heights, he mastered rap's rigidity, pushed it past its limits and eventually reconfigured the entire landscape alongside Big Boi. He granted a lineage of ATLiens permission to run amok with melodic, sing-songy rhyme styles that would earn them the same early derision and eventual mass following he'd gained.

Aging gracefully is not a luxury afforded most rappers. Even 50 years in, hip-hop is still no country for old men. But what of the rapper who comes to see rap itself as old hat? How should we, as fans, react when the poet laureate of our collective psyche trades in his pen for a woodwind?

A departure album in the classic sense, New Blue Sun also feels like André has arrived. Its making came about organically, once he relocated from New York to LA. Instead of the OutKast origin story that started at Headland and Delowe, where Big Boi and Dre met their future Dungeon Family producers Organized Noize back in the day, this remix began with an unassuming trip to Erewhon — the chic LA health food chain where André bumped into percussionist and experimental jazz heavy, Carlos Niño.

Before long, André started showing up, flute in hand, to Niño's crib where they'd jam in the basement the same way he did in the early Dungeon days. Their impromptu meeting introduced André to a community of collaborators who contribute to New Blue Sun — from keyboardist and Alice Coltrane acolyte Surya Botofasina to guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Nate Mercereau.

With no intention of making an album, they began recording about a year ago. Each song was pure improvisation, with musicians responding to each other in real time.

The result is subtle but daring. Mainly because it flies in the face of everything we've come to expect, and selfishly demand, as André 3000 fans. Yet, somehow, the purely instrumental New Blue Sun exposes his unrefined soul — and the delicate nature of his creative process — in ways the Gemini wordsmith's fine-tuned verses tend to conceal.

When we talked a few weeks before the album's release, he was equally transparent and tangible, whether laughing about Tyler, the Creator's funny response to his new music, detailing the wild ayahuasca trip that had him purring like a panther in Hawaii or sharing the reason why he gets so many requests to play flute at funerals now.

The man may not owe us anything, but he's finally ready to share.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen: The NPR Music interview with André 3000

Rodney Carmichael: There's obviously been a lot of pressure from fans for you to release a new album for years now. I'm sure you've felt it. But from what I've heard you say in past interviews, it seems like maybe the greatest pressure you felt was the pressure you were putting on yourself at times.

André 3000: Yeah, for sure. It's always been that way. Even in our height of what people know of what I've done before, I was always like a slow writer. I'm not a freestyler. I don't be freestyling. I just wasn't blessed with that.

I'm a writer, and not necessarily a pen and pad writer, but I construct and architect verses in a way. That's what I've been doing all my life. So I look at it in that way, and if I'm not satisfied with what it is I just don't put it out. Even during the earlier times, Big Boi, he just kind of got down, like, he's so fast and efficient with what he does. And it'll take me a minute to throw them down. So I've always kind of been analyzing it or figuring out how I wanted to approach it.

So, in these times, it just comes harder for me to do it and I don't know why. I mean I try it all the time. It's not like I don't try or it's not like I have a lot of these songs just sitting — I have songs but it's not like rap things that I really feel happy about sharing. And really, that's the most important part. I have to feel happy about sharing it.

The album cover for <em>New Blue Sun </em>by André 3000.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The album cover for New Blue Sun by André 3000.

That's why New Blue Sun was something that I realized, whoa, I really want people to hear it. I really want to share it. That's my only gauge. I have to like it as a person, as an artist myself, because if I don't like it I can't expect nobody else to like it. I can't pretend in that way. That's always been hard for me.

Once we started recording New Blue Sun, I think like three songs in I was like, Oh, we got something. I remember I had maybe four songs and I was just kind of testing it out 'cause I wanted to see how a younger audience would perceive it. I live in Cali now, so I reached out to Tyler for him to check it out and I went to his house.

Tyler, the Creator.

Yeah. So we're sitting there and Frank [Ocean] just happened to drop by. So it's us three sitting there listening to these three songs and I just kind of wanted to get an opinion. And it was just good for me to hear with somebody else. Because sometimes you can be in your own thing and think it's a certain thing and you just want to have some outside... not that it really matters, because once you believe in it enough — I mean, I take criticism all the time, but it's not like, 'Hey, do you like it or not?' It's, 'How can we help it?' So at that point, I felt like we had something because we had a nice day just enjoying it in a way. And I started just playing it for friends and playing it for artists and playing it for people I respect or people who I felt would get it.

And what kind of feedback would they give you?

Oh, [laughs] Tyler was staring at this thing that he has in his house. Like, he's a fan of travel suitcases and so he has a wall of like travel suitcases. And he was like, "Man, I've been trying to figure out how to configure these like Louis suitcases." And he was listening to one of the songs and he was like, "It sounds like you're chasing a butterfly through a garden and I figured it out. It helped me to figure out how to do this." And I think Frank pointed out one of his favorite tracks out of the three.

And I was just happy to hear that, 'cause I respect them as musicians. Like new energy; they're going for it, man. So I really respect their opinions. I play it for my homies. I play it for friends, play it for artists, directors — just to see their reaction more than anything. So I was just happy with what I was getting.

It feels like you're taking us to other realms — or definitely other realms of André.

Yeah, it took me to other realms, to be completely honest. Like, I've been playing flute for years. It got to a point where it's kind of Instagram-worthy, where people were kind of sneaking and filming me play — in space, in the public. I might be at Starbucks getting a coffee. I might just start playing. And people would just film it and post it. That started to happen a lot. One person actually came up to me on the street and he was like, "Man, it's a thing, it's a game almost like we're trying to find you and trying to film you play a flute." And that kind of was sucky because it was like a Where's Waldo? kind of thing.

And I didn't like that because they just kept getting little nicks of me, just kind of messing around, you know.

So I just felt like I'd really like to play but it was really for me. I would just walk for hours and I'm a walker. I love to walk. So I would just walk and play for hours. I did that for years and it got to a point where, okay, I want to share. And so going into New Blue Sun, it was kind of like trying to figure out, well, how do I share it? And I had all these ideas and all these influences of how I wanted it to sound. And I think moving to Venice definitely helped introduce me to people I would be playing with.

I actually met Carlos Niño in Erewhon. Everybody know we call it Club Erewhon because it's a fashionable place to be. So I'm in Erewhon and we meet and he was like, "Everybody has been telling me that you were in town playing flute and they were telling me that we should meet." He invited me to an event that he was throwing — this Alice Coltrane tribute event. And I brought my flute. It was a few hours after we met. And we actually just hooked up and I would go to his house, go to his basement and we'd just be playing.

So when I started to say, Hey, I really want to make an effort to make this album, he said, I know players that could help. And we sat around. We tried a few different configurations to figure out what works best for me and in producing the album. We nailed it down and we experimented and we found a sound and it ended up being the core four of us — me on different woodwind instruments and digital flutes; Carlos Niño on percussion; Nate Mercereau on guitar, and he hardly ever sounds like he's playing guitar, but he's an awesome guitarist, he's kind of like a magician in a way; and then Surya Botofasina, he's a keyboardist. And that was the core four. But I would have never met the people that were really important to what I'm doing now if I wouldn't have moved to Venice and it was happenstance how I moved to Venice.

I know I'm going a long way around it, but the way we recorded it, I think it's important to know. When I say it transcended me, it took me to different places to play. Like we don't sit around and say, okay, we're going to play these chords. 'Cause I don't know chords. I don't know keys. I don't know notes. I've always produced in that way, just kind of doing it. And so in this situation, we have the engineer set up and we just press record and find ourselves and listen to each other. So everything you're hearing on New Blue Sun was spontaneous compositions. We made it up on the spot.

You mentioned Carlos Niño, whom you produced the album with. He's a heavy hitter and kind of what almost feels like a spiritual guru of sorts in the LA alt-jazz world.

[Laughs] We laugh at the "guru" cause he's like, 'I'm not no guru.' But I understand what you mean, man. He's a great connector, great person, great musician.

He's worked with everybody from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to Madlib. And I know you played flute on his most recent Carlos Niño & Friends album [(I'm just) Chillin', on Fire] on a song called "Conversations."

Mm-Hmm. . Mm-Hmm. .

And the way you talk about this community of artists that you got linked up with, it kind of makes me think about your beginnings with the Dungeon [Family].

Definitely. I'm glad you said that because even like the last song on the album, it mentions the Dungeon. And that's on purpose. Because, in the same way, when you talk about Carlos Niño and Nate Mercereau and Surya Botofasina and this whole community of players, it gives you an opportunity and support system to be as free as you can be. And you need to feel comfortable in a situation to be really free. And that's why I really champion crews, like even rap crews. It's important for your crew to be supportive of you because you can be the best you can be.

I wouldn't be able to play flute or any of this stuff. I wouldn't have produced any of this if it wasn't for the Dungeon. So the Dungeon was the dirt. That's the ground that we planted everything in and all of those members in the Dungeon Family — Goodie Mob, Organized Noize, Big Boi, everybody — created an environment for me to be able to, like, just go.

You've talked in recent years about having social anxiety disorder and how the need for isolation compounded that even further. Which, first of all, I want to say is so refreshing to me that we, as Black men, especially, are starting to be just more transparent with each other about mental health. But the fact that this album wasn't made in isolation and was a very collaborative process, can you talk more about how that gave you that sense of freedom and helped you get unstuck a little bit?

Yeah, totally. The environment was really important. And we're listening to each other, we're responding to each other, we're supporting each other at certain times. And that's the sound, so it's kind of mirroring real life. That's why I say when I describe it, which is hard to really describe, it's a full living, breathing album because it's fully alive.We didn't sketch it out.

And as far as anxiety and that kind of thing, yes, I have been diagnosed with that. But I realized that, like, life is life, man. Our grandparents didn't have these terms to describe these things, you know? They didn't have these diagnoses to describe these things. They may have been going through similar things, but they just had to live through it. That's what it is. Life is life and life will come at you in different ways, and it's for you to pay attention to what's happening. I don't feel worse or better than anybody else. I feel like what comes to you is for you.

I just use it as an instrument, just like it uses me. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for these, what they call "ailments" and all this kind of stuff. I don't want to lean on it. And a lot of times, because now we have a name for it, we're starting to lean on these names and kind of like really dig into these names and really just try to just figure yourself out. And I'm not sure if sometimes you may give yourself a disservice once you start calling the boogeyman, the boogeyman. Then you start looking for it. So it's like, just live and take it day by day, man. Everything won't be great. The only thing I can say: Learn how to ride the roller coaster. The best thing you can do is learn how to ride the roller coaster with your hands up.

Well, to a lot of people, it really has to be said that this might feel like a bit of a musical diversion because it's not a rap album. There's no rapping on the album at all. But I think that one thing that any true André 3000 fan has hopefully learned over the years is to always expect the unexpected. So in some ways, I feel like you've been preparing us for a new direction for decades. But I'm wondering what kind of work it took for you to prepare yourself. Even before you got with the tribe and the community and clique that you made this album with. What was that process like for you, in terms of getting to this point?

Living. It's not even like a magical thing. My training was living. My direction was living. And what I mean by that is, like you said, I've been kind of preparing you to always be expecting the unexpected from me. That's what's been given to me. When I was a kid, I liked to draw and paint. My mom thought I was going to go to art school. I was supposed to go to Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. And that just didn't happen. I discovered rap. I didn't know I'd be rapping. I didn't know I'd start producing. I didn't know I'd start singing. I didn't know my style would go a certain way. I didn't know I'd put a wig on. Like, I didn't know none of this. So I'm on the ride with y'all. I'm expecting anything just like y'all. I didn't know I'd be playing a flute.

I laugh at it because my homies in Atlanta, we'll talk and they'll be like, man, you know n***** think you crazy to f*** around with this flute.


And I'm always in on the joke. So don't ever think that I don't know how people think or look at me in a certain way. I understand. If I was on the outside, I would feel the same way. So, for me, I don't know what I'm going to do. But that's the cool and scary thing about it. And I think, as an artist, you kind of got to put yourself out there to be prepared to respond. I'm a responding person. That's what I am. I'm responding to what's given to me. It's responding to my contemporaries. It's responding to what I love. It's responding to what I don't like. It's responding to all of that.

As an artist, you got to have really strong antennas. And that's really what it's about. So where I am now is where I'm supposed to be. I couldn't plan it. And here's the cool thing. Yes, we can plan it, our limited human brains can plan it. But it's always greater and more magical when you're surprised by these things... I've seen artists transcend themselves and I get emotional about it.

When I see rappers go to a certain level, I'm sure they didn't know. Because I didn't know. So I know they ain't know. But that's the magic. So y'all just looking at the magic show, and it's nothing special. I'm not special. Everybody has a certain kind of magic show.

New Blue Sun track list:

  1. I swear, I Really Wanted To Make A "Rap" Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time 
  2. The Slang Word P(*)ssy Rolls Off The Tongue With Far Better Ease Than The Proper Word Vagina . Do You Agree?
  3. 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
  4. BuyPoloDisorder's Daughter Wears A 3000™ Button Down Embroidered
  5. Ninety Three 'Til Infinity And Beyoncé
  6. Ghandi, Dalai Lama, Your Lord & Savior J.C. / Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, And John Wayne Gacy
  7. Ants To You, Gods To Who ?
  8. Dreams Once Buried Beneath The Dungeon Floor Slowly Sprout Into Undying Gardens

The album is titled New Blue Sun. It feels like there's a double meaning at play.

Double, maybe triple. New Blue Sun, for me, it means ... Right now, if you look up in the sky, the sun that we've been living under for ages, even the Egyptian times, it's the same sun. And it's this kind of whitish, light, brightish kind of yellow. When people draw it or paint it, it's usually this whitish or yellowish kind of sun. And unfortunately, that sun is gonna burn out. At some point, that sun will die just like all stars.

And New Blue Sun, for me, was like, I guess in a sci-fi way, the next world or the next beings will be under a bluer, cooler burning sun. It will burn cooler, but it will be larger. So when you look up at the sky in these times, there'll be this larger globe of bluish, still bright but bluish because it's cooler. It's kind of like this whole album and this whole direction is a new world for me. New Blue Sun is like a new direction.

You got some real clever wordplay going on with these song titles. They feel part confessional, ironic, mind-altering — and all like super humorous. But also really lyrical and literary. And long. [Laughs]

Yeah, they were long on purpose because I knew if this album has no lyrics that I would try to give as much thought or information in the titles. And I been going through a phase where I love these really long titles. I was trying to find fun and I think that when people think of flutes, they think of cymbals and chimes or meditation or this kind of ethereal kind of sound. They forget that we're human, too.

I guess the rapper in me, like, I'm trying to humanize it or punkatize or, like, make it less precious. It is precious, but at the same time, we're human, so we laugh. I was trying to really inject some type of humanness because I'm a full-rounded person. I'm a Gemini. So you may think it's one side, but I got this whole other, like, devilish kind of side, too. And I think every human has it in them. I was trying to show some balance in it. It's not all incense burning, you know what I mean?

It's funny 'cause I listened to the album first before having the titles. And then, once I got the titles, it really forced me to listen with new ears. The first song title really addresses the elephant in the room right off top.

I don't want to troll people. I don't want people to think, Oh, this André 3000 album is coming! And you play it and like, Oh man, no verses. So even actually on the packaging, you'll see it says, "Warning: no bars."

It's letting you know what it is off the top. But also, I love rap music because it was a part of my youth. So I would love to be out here with everybody rapping, because it's almost like fun and being on the playground. I would love to be out here playing with everybody, but it's just not happening for me. This is the realest thing that's coming right now. Not to say that I would never do it again, but those are not the things that are coming right now. And I have to present what's given to me at the time.

So the title, "I Really Wanted To Make A Rap Album, But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time" [is] because this album is about wind and breathing. In that way, it is true. It is literally blowing me this way and I'm blowing flutes and I'm blowing digital instruments.

I also imagine that the legacy of OutKast, as great as it is, has maybe in some ways also weighed you down at times or blanketed your creativity?

Nah, nah, nah. It catapulted me, man. OutKast was just an incubator to explore.

I couldn't have done a lot of the things if Big Boi didn't support it. If I was on my own, it may have been taken a different way.

But even now, 20 years out almost, post-OutKast, did it still feel like a catapult or did it ever feel like something you had to live up to in terms of whatever you were going to do next?

If I'm a fan, yeah. I do understand how you would want it to live up to what was before. So in that way, it's kind of sucky that people judge you for what was before. But that's life, you know, and OutKast was a part of my life. And of course there are certain standards that we set. We've created certain standards that people's ears have gotten accustomed to. People are going to expect a thing, but I wouldn't say it's a bad thing. It's kind of a good thing in a way, 'cause you hope to create an art piece that people enjoy and they've enjoyed it for years. So they kind of want to hold you to that.

When you talk about your relationship with rap, it makes me curious: Is it the art form itself or the current state of rap that you feel most disconnected from?

No, no, it's all of it. Where the world dictates how you come. So all of it is a factor. I mean, I get beats from producers — even, like, current producers now — all the time. And I still produce myself, but I just haven't found anything that's pleasing enough to me to want to present.

And not from any of the producers or anything, because I be loving when I hear somebody else do it. But it's kind of like, I don't know how to rock on that, really, in a way that I feel great about it. So if I can't find a way to rock on it, I kind of leave it there.

Is that why you've said instrumental music feels more rebellious to you? Talk about your passion for it, how it started and how you kind of got off into that bag.

What's really funny: As a youngster, when I heard jazz music, I associated jazz music with old people.

I'm just being honest. As a rapper, I associated jazz music with old people and elevator music — because it had become that. And here's what's hilarious, too: Every generation will do that. What's funny is at some point in the future, people are going to listen to trap music and be like, Oh, that's nice.

It happens. Because society moves forward and it always does. But I remember when I was about 20 and I got into producing... I always liked some songs, the pop songs like "Take Five" or Chuck Mangione ["Feels So Good"] — I remember that playing on the radio as a kid and humming the melodies. So I'm getting affected by these instrumental cats. And once I started really getting into it, I'm like, hold up: Jazz was the rap of that time. These dudes, they were smoking. They were doing heroin. They were in clubs. We trade verses; they [were] trading solos. [When] you really get into it and you really understand what they were doing — and how rebellious what they were doing [was] — you're like, man, this is the ultimate.

Once I discovered and got deep into it — loving Eric Dolphy and Coltrane and Yusef Lateef, you know, Pharoah Sanders — like, these are some of my favorites. And as a child, I'm like, Whoa, they can actually say something, or make me feel something, without saying something.

Yeah. That's hard.

Think about it, man. And it's so universal, too. Because you don't have to be American. You don't have to be Japanese. You don't have to be from Israel. You don't have to be from South America. But it affects everybody because they're tones. It's just sounds and tones that can be translated in any way, and that was really, really attractive to me. So I always looked up to those cats more than anybody.

I've always messed around with instruments and I was trying to figure out how can I do it in my own way? And so when I got to this point, it was just fun. And I felt like if someone is transported or they're feeling a thing or feeling a way, I'm sharing something in a different way.

I know from watching my heroes grow older that your rhythm ages you in a certain way and your vocals age you in a certain way. So I was always trying to figure out a way that I can continue. You can continue rapping for the rest of your life till you're 90 years old, but I've always tried to find a way that was ageless. And when you're listening to a player, a lot of times you may not know their age. I kind of love that in a way. Not that there's anything wrong with age. I think we have a thing where we kind of run away from age; I love that I'm 48 now. If I could go back to being 21, I would not. And that's just the truth. Sometimes I look in the mirror. I'm like, Man, you have silver hair. And I'm like, that's so awesome, you know what I mean? It's like I'm a silverback gorilla. You have to earn that. You have to really earn it. I've had silver hair since I was 17, to be honest. But now it's more prominent.

Do you find that you're able to say things through the music that you can't with words?

Yes. Now that people are finally hearing it, everybody has their own translation. And that's kind of cool, because it's for you. It's your thing. You can have your own thoughts with it. I have my own thoughts. One cool thing about flute — or any kind of instrumental music, but for me the focus is flute and wind instruments — like, whatever mood I'm in, if I'm playing, I can be saying anything. I can be saying, I hate that p**** n****. I can be saying that with my flute. Or I can be saying, Oh, you're really attractive. I can be saying those things in my mind and translating them in my way. It's funny: Some things in society you can't say out loud, especially now. Everybody's really sensitive about things, but you can say them with an instrument. It's kind of cool. It's kind of like a sub-talk.

How many flutes do you own?

Uh, maybe about 30, 40 flutes.

Wow. Okay. I did not expect that.

It's because I started with one style of flute. The style that I started with was introduced to me by Kassia. She's a world-class surfer and she was playing this flute at this breathwork class. As soon as she started playing, my ears popped up. I'm like, what is that sound? I had to go up to her and ask her. And she introduced me to my flute master, the guy that makes my flutes, Guillermo Martinez. And that style of flute that he makes was my intro into flutes.

I was living in New York at that point and when I get into an Uber, get into a taxi, I always play. And depending on the taxi driver, whatever nationality they were — if they were Chinese or if they were African or Indian — they would always turn around and be like, 'Oh, that reminds me of my country.' Even though I'm playing one flute. At that point, they would start to have a conversation with me, like, Oh man, have you ever heard of the Bansuri flute? Which is an Indian flute. Or, Oh, have you heard of the Ney flute? That's, like, an Egyptian or Turkish flute.

I'm kind of getting schooled by different cultures on different flutes. So when I say I have a lot of flutes, I have mostly my style of flutes made by Guillermo. But I started to just collect a lot of different flutes from a lot of different countries. So I have flutes from Thailand. I have flutes from China. I have flutes from Korea. Flutes from Africa.

It's just being excited about wind and flutes, and every culture has a flute. The flute is the first instrument where we actually heard a musical tone or note. And one thing I like about flutes, and wooden flutes in particular, is it's the closest to the human voice out of all the instruments. I think that's why I kind of gravitated towards it. When you're hearing a flute player or saxophonist, you're actually hearing the wind of that human. You hear it more in wood, because I think sometimes the metal may color it more. But it's something about the wood and the human voice. It's closest to the human voice. I think I was really attracted to that.

You talked about the random André sightings and how it became like a game of Where's Waldo? But the thing, to me, that's interesting about those sightings is they started happening at a time when we weren't seeing or hearing much from you. And when we would see you, you would look at peace. You were playing this flute and it was reassuring that whatever was going on with you, you seemed like you were in a good place. And with artists that we care about, when we're not hearing output from them, that's always a question. Are they in a good place?

I'm happy. I'm happy when I'm playing. I'm exploring when I'm playing. I'm thinking when I'm playing. I wouldn't say that it's a set-out meditation, but I do think you get into a meditative practice for staying in the moment and doing a repetition of something. Actually, every time when I'm playing, I'm making it up as I'm going along.

So I have to force myself to pay attention to what I'm doing. Sometimes I may find a pattern that I like or a melody that I like that I kind of go back to, but for the most I'm responding to what's happening. So yeah, I'm very in the moment when I'm playing.

And it's funny you say that because if I was on the corner and somebody said, "Oh man, that's André 3000. Man, rap!" It would feel so weird for me to just start rapping. But if somebody said, "Hey, play! What does that sound like?" I'm so gung-ho to play. I love to play it. So yeah, it's completely different. Maybe because it's completely free. Like, I love when rappers can freestyle. Maybe they feel that feeling too when someone asks them to rap, but for me, that's like if someone asked you to build a house right here on the spot, you know what I mean? That may be fun for some people, but it's actually work for me.

Now, I ain't gonna lie, this [song, "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.,"] sounds like a straight-up ayahuasca trip or something like that.

That is exactly what I was talking about.

[Laughs] Okay, well you gotta tell me the story behind this night.

I was actually in Hawaii and it was my second night of the first time I'd ever taken ayahuasca. We did it like a three-night kind of phase. The first night was inviting and beautiful and the most powerful love and connection with all things I've ever felt in my life. The second night was different and everybody knows that aya will do you that way. The second night my stomach was hurting, my mouth contorted like a panther and I actually turned into a panther. And I was doing like GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR — like, that kind of thing.

I actually turned into a panther. It was doing this thing called toning. Toning is another way of purging. And toning is where you make these vibrational noises that you can't control. It started playing me like an instrument. I started as a panther and then it would make me do these long kind of tones and started changing the notes.

So, on the album I'm mimicking [it], but the funny thing in the aya session, I was like, Damn, I wish I had my phone so I can record this 'cause, like, it'd be so dope. I'm witnessing it and I'm watching it and it holds you for so long. I'm like, where's this breath coming from? And then you end off and you go and do it again. And I'm like, whoa, what is happening right now? So that's what I'm talking about in that title.

Was it scary at the time? How did it make you feel?

It was kind of intriguing at the time because, the sound listener in me, I'm digging the sound. But at the same time, the shaman is coming over and he's fanning me. And he's saying, "Oh, that's like 20 years of therapy happening right now."

I guess I had to get through that moment. But yeah, it was just interesting because my mouth actually shaped like a panther.

And this lasted hours or how long was it?

Most aya sessions last about six hours. But it don't feel like six hours. It feels like maybe two or three.

Has it been, overall, even after the fact — as eye-opening an experience as they say it?

Yeah, man, I was a changed person when I left Hawaii.


Yeah, I have to say, man, it is legit, you know? I won't say it's, like, a fix-all kind of thing, but at the time, when I went to do it, I was in a very, very low place. A friend of mine told me about it and he was like, "You got to check it out. Read this book first." So I read about it before I went in, because I was like, man, y'all n***** just like to do drugs and I'm not into it like that. And it just so happened that I ran into a person that was going to Hawaii the next day. And I was like, well, why are you going to Hawaii? He's like, yeah, I'm going to do this thing with the sham. So, usually, it comes to you when you need it.

So I would tell anybody, don't let anybody force you into doing ayahuasca or nothing like that. You'll know if you want to do it or when you need to do it because it calls you. And I know it sounds bigger than what it is, but it actually is bigger than what it is. But it's so natural. The plants have been here way before we were human. So it's like you're having a conversation with your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers.

It's one thing to talk about your evolution as an artist, but even as a person, you've been through a lot that, honestly, I don't know if fans always remember to take into account when we make these selfish demands for more music from artists that we love.

In the last decade, you've lost both your mom and your dad and, more recently, your stepdad — who I know you've said was really an anchoring person in your life. That's a lot of grief for anybody to hold, especially back to back. How did managing all of that change you as a person?

Yes, it's a lot ... in the order that it happened. But it's life too, man. The worst thing about it is you don't expect it. It wasn't anything that I could prepare for. But yeah, I'm happy to know that my parents and my stepfather are in their next phase of what's happening, you know.

At the time, it was a lot. It was really, really heavy for me, but you get through it and you keep living. They exchange energy with you, so you kind of feel a boost in your back at the same time as if, you know, when they pass, they give it to you. So I can say, death makes you think about living. Death makes you push.

The unfortunate thing is the older you get, the more funerals you have to go to.

Yeah, I hear that often. Did it make music, or your art and craft, feel any less essential or more essential in any kind of way?

No, I wouldn't say that. It just kind of makes you just remember things. It makes you remember the times that you and your mom had. Or the times you and your dad had. Or the times that your stepdad told you certain things.

Yeah, it just kinda reiterates what was given to you when they were here, you know... I just had a conversation with Guillermo, my flute maker, and he was telling me that there's a responsibility that comes with flute playing. Maybe two years after I had my flute, I went back to Guillermo to kind of get a checkup on my flute and get it tuned and clean. And he pulls me to the side and he's like, "Hey, I noticed that you're really into these flutes. I have to tell you ... that there will come a time when you play and people will cry."

And it's happened to me like a few times now. Grown men, like crying. One time, I'm in a taxi — and once I get in I usually start playing — and this guy turns around crying. He was like, "My mother died last night. And when you play, it makes it feel like she's right here in the seat with me."

We were having this conversation, me and Guillermo, and he was like, "I get asked to play at funerals now." And I was like, whoa, that's crazy, because I was recently asked to play at a funeral. And I denied it.

When Virgil [Abloh] passed, his family asked would I play at the funeral and I denied it, but only because I felt like I would be a distraction. I don't know, I just felt like it would have taken away from the moment and I only knew Virgil through texts and a few conversations. So I couldn't pretend like I knew him that well. I was honored that the family asked me to play at the funeral, but I couldn't. And so when I told Guillermo, he was like, "Yeah, sometimes you have to look at it now as a responsibility to play. They asked you to play for a reason."

When my mom passed, I had this urge to play. But I wasn't even playing flute back then. I think I was more on guitar at that point. And I just didn't. I don't think I could go through with it. But yeah, there's something about it ... playing at funerals. I think New Orleans has it best. Like, I think the way we do funerals, I think it's really antiquated and sad. I think we need to party more.

One thing about people who acquire a certain amount of fame is you don't always necessarily have a lot of control over your legacy or how you are remembered or the parts that people choose to gloss over or the parts they obsess about forever. But if you could choose, how would you summarize this first half-century of your life?

I've noticed that I'm a catalyst kind of artist. And what I mean by that is I think I'm being used in ways to be watched, to be inspiring to people. And to me, that's the best thing ever, man. To inspire someone else to do something else.

I see it now. I see the inspiration and other people and, to me, it's validation of me being here as a human. I think all humans just want validation. If I got to go through this life, I at least want people to know that I did something or that I was valuable to somebody. So I've kind of had time to sit and look back — from rap to musicians to the new generation to new artists — that I'm so happy that I was a part of a lineage and a legacy and kind of food for the next generation. Because I've noticed that you're only as good as the people that were before you.

What is it that you hope this generation, this hip-hop generation, takes from this particular project and this moment in your creative arc?

Explore, man. Explore. That's what it's about. Like, keep pushing. That's really what it is. I mean, the same way you explore words, you don't have to let it stick to words. Explore. Whatever you pay attention to, pay attention to what you're paying attention to and go for it. That's really what it is. Like, I couldn't have planned this. I just started paying attention to a thing and just went for it. So you don't have to stay in a certain way. And they know it now; like, they got it, man.

I'm seeing that whole no categories kind of thing. We're in a world now where we have so many influences coming from so many different directions that you don't have to be one thing. I do find it noble and I find it awesome when someone can focus on one thing. But a lot of different practices, or bringing in a lot of different things, is interesting, too. So if it calls you, test it. I just really want to be inspiring for people and to look at it and be like, yeah, I want to explore.

I haven't really changed my formula at all. It's just, this is further out. Like I've always kind of just been exploring what I can do and just kind of riding the ride. When me and Big Boi got together, we didn't really know where we were going. We had human intentions. We knew we wanted to rap. And I never knew that rapping would even take me to producing and producing would take me to playing instruments and instruments would get me here. So I've just been on the ride and people have been on a ride with us and with me. I see this as just [being] further down the road.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.