André 3000 is a renowned recluse. Infrequent appearances from the famed lyricist and one half of the duo Outkast are akin to sightings of the great white whale, the source of Captain Ahab’s “quenchless feud.” And much like the storied creature of old, 3 Stacks has taken on a certain mythical aura that has attracted unwavering onlookers clambering to catch a glimpse. Early Sunday morning, the enigmatic artist returned to the fold, letting loose two songs that can only be described as an emotional reckoning. With a freshly verified Instagram account, he introduced the new music in six posts, the first one being a vintage polaroid that features him as a child, grinning and clad in graduation attire. He promptly followed it up with screenshots of his final text message exchange with his mother before her passing, as well as a brief note on Mother’s Day: “I’m sure all the cards, dinners, flowers and last minute gifts are appreciated but I’ve learned the best gift a parent could get is to simply know their child is OK.” An inescapable ending detail, “Link in bio,” leads to a SoundCloud playlist complete with 22-minutes of internal exploration: the avant-garde “Look Ma No Hands” and the elegant piano ballad, “Me&My (To Bury Your Parents).”
The transformational, 17-minute “Look Ma No Hands” is an instrumental offering on which English musician James Blake plays the keys, while André artfully meanders along on the bass clarinet, letting forth improvisational bursts in a series of dreamy jazz riffs. The imaginative dissonance of his chord progressions is deafening. It’s a floating stream of consciousness from which it is difficult to extract any discernible meaning other than raw, unhindered experimentation. Still, there is a sense of liberation to the track, which ebbs and flows without paying heed to the stereotypical boundaries of musical structure. It’s a freeing moment for the man who has spoken at great length on mending his psyche and accepting guilt. In an interview published in GQ in October, André pondered the recent “hole” that had engulfed his creativity and personal life. “I was still not dealing with my mom’s and my father’s deaths. And really, I don’t know if I have still.”
André chooses to make peace with his past demons on “Me&My (To Bury Your Parents),” an ode to his late mother and father. His mother, Sharon Benjamin-Hodo, passed away on May 28, 2013, the day after André’s 38th birthday. His father, Lawrence Walker, died the following year. Instead of rapping, the specific musical discipline that he has unquestionably mastered, André employs singing as a means to reflect on the formative memories of his childhood:
Me and my mother drivin’ to the grocery store
Me ridin’ shotgun with my window rolled down
She smoked cigarettes and gets what she gets by
Hustlin’ harder, rollers and a nightgown
Me and my father driving to the football game
Me ridin’ shotgun, my window rolled down
His tender realizations about his father are particularly moving. “I was much happier when he was around,” he confesses, before hastily breathing in and whispering, “when he was around.” There is closure to his sparse statements; it’s a palpable cathartic release full of simple truths that he is finally confronting after all these years. André is a changed man, and his mournings represent a newfound perspective now that his parents are gone. All that is left are cherished photographs and memories, vividly brought to life through song. Kevin Kendrick, who most notably handled the spirited piano melody on “Hey Ya” and the more mellow “She’s Alive,” on which André sings about a strong-willed single mother, is the lone soul to accompany the ATLien on “Me&My (To Bury Your Parents).” His talents provide the backdrop for André’s intonations on the ache of loss and the unstated toll that it has taken on him.
The sudden musical about-face is welcome if somewhat unexpected, especially given André’s proclivity for the disappearing act. Ever since the release of double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he has been in and out of the music scene, abruptly coming and going as he pleases. In 2014, he reconnected with Big Boi for an Outkast reunion, performing at a number of music festivals. And in 2016, he contributed the odd guest verse here and there, appearing on tracks with Frank Ocean, Travis Scott, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and A Tribe Called Quest. While speaking to Complex in August, André seemingly put to rest the possibility that there would ever be another Outkast album. “At this stage I’m really more focused on what I am going to be doing 10 years from now. And I hope to God it won’t be rapping,” he quipped.
The Mother’s Day surprise felt like a momentous release, though not in the sense that it foretells the release of a larger solo project, the likes of which the hip hop community has been prophesying for years. “Look Ma No Hands” doesn’t have a commercial bone in its body, while “Me&My (To Bury Your Parents)” is much too personal in its focus to be anything more than pure introspection. It’s a blessing when André graces the music world with his ingenuity, but this moment is confined to the intimate here and now. He’s releasing music on his own terms as he always has; nothing more, nothing less. The likelihood of him returning in the future is nigh impossible to calculate. With his timely reemergence comes the likelihood that he’ll be here today and gone tomorrow, like the fading characters he has so lovingly revitalized. Despite his towering presence in music, André has always remained strikingly human, an endearing quality that has not been overlooked. He’s a man of few words, and even fewer public actions. And that’s OK. Who knows: he might never release another song, or there might be an album lying in wait on our doorsteps next week. One thing is for certain: André 3000 is coming to terms with his bittersweet past as he so desires, candidly displaying the singular calm that has been a guiding force throughout his brilliant career.