There have been hundreds upon hundreds of ambient music albums released this year, but there’s only one released by an elite-tier rapper with a 13-times-Platinum record under his overalls. In the 16 years since the tectonic-shifting Outkast went on hiatus, fans of the duo’s André 3000 have been clamoring for the superstar to deliver something more than the occasional knockout guest verse. Instead, he’s been following his arrow as a nomadic, bohemian troubadour playing his flute in airports, coffee shops, sidewalks and yoga classes. His debut album, New Blue Sun is the full blossom of his middle-aged slide into gentle drones and minimalist reedwork. Fans have been justifiably cautious about an album bearing the sticker “Warning: No Bars” and song-titles like “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.” Luckily, André 3000’s 87-minute ambient music odyssey is a gorgeous, deeply contemporary, prismatic breath of fresh incense.
New Blue Sun also marks a peak in the decade-long crescendo of hipsterati new age revival. In the early 2010s, tastemaking reissue labels like Numero Group, Light in the Attic and Rvng Intl. began re-issuing private press American new age music, freeing a once-derided genre from a reputation as crystals-and-wind-chimes uncoolness and repositioning it as an American folk tradition brimming with D.I.Y. energy. Labels like Empire of Signs and Switzerland’s WRWTFWW have turned their attention to reenergizing the more gaseous, electronic-minded ambient music of Japan, which you may be able to hear in New Blue Sun‘s more synthetic moments. Alanis Morrisette, Moby, 6lack, Sufjan Stevens and even actor Jeff Bridges have had various degrees of success with the healing music over the last few years.
More from Rolling Stone
For its part, New Blue Sun is most of a piece with scrappy, prolific Los Angeles cassette tape label Leaving Records, an imprint that also exists at the intersection of ambient, new age, jazz, improv and experimental electronic music. Much of the Leaving roster —Matthewdavid, Carlos Niño, Deantoni Parks, V.C.R — are on hand to assist and compliment André’s melodies, expanding his cycling curlicues of digital flute into a communal bouillabaisse of swelling cymbals and alien glitter.
Though the press materials link New Blue Sun to the organic minimalism of Laraaji and the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane, in practice it’s more like the dreamy, semi-organic “fourth world” music of composers like Jon Hassell and Steve Roach: imagined landscapes where cosmic electronics euphorically tangle with various shakers, reeds and rainsticks. André’s “digital reed instrument” evokes the late-Eighties uncanny valley soundworlds of Japanese composers like Yoshio Ojima — not totally real, not totally fake, totally transfixing. New Blue Sun is by no means patient or minimal. Andre’s crew instead works together like a dynamic live band that deals in soft tones and gentle moods whether riding a groove (That Night in Hawaii…”), swelling into waterfalls of happy chaos (“BuyPoloDisorder’s Daughter…”) or creating rainforests of sound (“Ants to You…”). Our bandleader has a wayfaring meander that dances in percussive bursts while his fellow players burble, simmer and sparkle. All these moving parts mean it’s not exactly the most immersive environment for those seeking “calming” or “healing” music. However, when approached as the product of a tape-label basement jazz group or a subterranean electronic ensemble, New Blue Sun is an absolute joy.
New Blue Sun is not the best ambient record you can hear in 2023. It’s slight when placed next to the confrontational gush of Tim Hecker’s No Highs, the delicate vulnerability of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 12, the pastoral zones of Takashi Kokubo & Andrea Esperti’s Music for a Cosmic Garden or the enveloping warmth of Loscil/Lawrence English’s Colours of Air. However, New Blue Sun will probably be the only ambient record many people do hear in 2023, and it’s great that such a lively, sumptuous album gets the gig. Just like with his game-changing rap group, André 3000 is once again playing Pied Piper, and a world of sound awaits those who follow with open ears and open minds.
Best of Rolling Stone