Is there any combination of words that feels more anticlimactic than “experimental flute music”? “Rail replacement bus service” perhaps. Try it: “Happy anniversary darling! I got you an experimental flute music experience.” “You’re a beneficiary in my will! I’m bequeathing you my experimental flute music collection.”
So when this week’s news that André Benjamin is finally releasing his debut solo album, 17 years since he last blessed the world of hip hop with an album as one half of Outkast, was followed quickly by “consisting entirely of experimental flute music”, you could almost hear the groans of disappointment.
This is the guy who achieved pop perfection with Hey Ya! in 2003, whose double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (his half of which should actually count as his first solo record) drew dizzy comparisons to Prince’s Sign o' the Times and The Beatles’ White Album. Is this really how he’s going to reintroduce himself to the music world?
Benjamin is all too aware that long-term fans will feel let down. The packaging says “Warning: no bars” (as in rap verses) and the first song, one of eight absurdly long titles, is called I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a "Rap" Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.
Digest those disclaimers, and what are we left with? New Blue Sun feels like music from the time when your record shop had a “New Age” section, or that CD rack stocked with images of dolphins and rainforests in your local garden centre. Percussion twinkles and crinkles, keyboard sounds burble warmly, and Benjamin improvises with a range of different woodwinds. The songs are long, and peaceful, and deliberately unfocused. When he lands on a repeating melody near the end of That Night In Hawaii When I Turned Into A Panther…, it’s not worth the amount of time he spends restating it.
He isn’t completely rejecting the commercial world. There’s a booming market for mindfulness music, with streaming services awash with playlists to accompany your yoga or revision or sleep. The techno producer Jon Hopkins’ last album was called Music for Psychedelic Therapy, and both James Blake and Arcade Fire have created soundscapes for the relaxation apps Endel and Headspace.
We should admire Benjamin for following his muse so completely, but is he enough of a pied piper that people will still follow him? He’s made a musical scented candle that is perfectly pleasant, but it also feels like he’s capable of so much more.