What is the message of a song without words?
What is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony trying to tell you?
Sorry, that’s a trick question.
It’s not trying to tell you anything. It’s trying to make you feel something.
Okay, stay with me. I know that was one of the sappiest, most artsy things anyone has ever written, but it’s true.
There are no words to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. But you don’t need words.
Those first four notes say more than words ever could.
You hear it — “Dun-dun-dun-dun!” — and you instantly feel a sense of dread.
And historians tell us that one possible message Beethoven was trying to convey was a sense of fate at the door — an intimidating thought indeed.
But I’m not writing about Beethoven today. I’m jumping 200 years later to write about André 3000’s new album: “New Blue Sun.”
André 3000 is one half of the rap duo Outkast, one of the most celebrated hip-hop acts of all time.
Outkast famously called it quits in the mid-2000s and members André 3000 and Big Boi have worked on a handful of solo projects in the years since then and this is André’s first-ever solo album.
But in a twist that put the rap world on its heels, the album is entirely instrumental. Not a word is spoken in its hour and a half runtime.
André even pokes fun at this idea in the name of the first track: “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.”
Between the tongue-in-cheek, run-on song names and just the fact that one of the most famous rappers of all time put out a flute album, you have to respect the confidence in Mr. 3000’s game.
It’s not every musician that feels confident enough in their career to say: “You know what? I wanna do this, so I’m gonna do it.”
But, does it work?
In the decades since Outkast’s finale, photos and videos around the internet have shown André practicing with a large flute in music studios and other locations, so it’s safe to assume that he’s put in the work to learn the instrument.
But for better or for worse, “New Blue Sun” isn’t just an hour of toots and tweets.
I can’t shake the fact that much of the album sounds like a kid who got one of those keyboards that plays random sounds — a fire truck siren, laser blasts, cat meows — on every button.
There’s low bellowing drums on the album, and then high, spacy notes with almost cell-phone like chirps in the background — and then what sounds like boxes or other clutter falling in the back of the recording booth.
Now, if you see me out in the world with headphones on, there’s a good chance that I’m listening to an instrumental song from either a lo-fi musician or a soundtrack of some sort. So I’m definitely no stranger to instrumental music.
Even so, it took a bit just to get past the “what is going on?” sense on the first listen of this album.
That being said, I don’t really mean the kid-with-a-toy comparison as an insult.
The music is childish in the sense that it sounds like someone being creative without feeling like they have to follow the rules, and that’s a wonderful thing.
You can feel the sense of André having fun making this album and trying different things to go for different moods.
It’s also fun that I can hear hints of André’s rap delivery at certain points even without vocals.
André was always the Abbott to Big Boi’s Costello in Outkast — the slick to Big Boi’s heavy. and you can picture that sharp delivery over points like the 8:00 mark on the second track and the 1:30 mark on the track “Ninety Three ‘Til Infinity and Beyoncé.”
To my earlier point about the message of instrumental songs, I get a strong sense of wonder from many tracks on the album — a sense of trying to stand back and just take in these massive experiences of life.
That’s not exactly unexpected on New Age, “World Music” albums like this, though.
Also, to keep the child metaphor going, this feels like a young kid’s first painting — where you use all the colors just because you can.
I hope André puts out another album like this at some point. The ambition and energy are definitely there, but I feel like a second effort would be a lot more focused and polished.
As it is, the album is an interesting experiment of a talented artist. But even as relaxing meditation music, there’s not much staying power here.
I give “New Blue Sun” 3 stars out of 5.
Have you listened to “New Blue Sun”? What did you think? Email Ben Rowe at email@example.com with your thoughts and takeaways.
What is the message of a song without words?