Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From rap to experimental flute, how and why musicians reinvent their sound


Last month, Andre 3000 made one of the most notable left turns in modern music history. Three Stacks, as he's been known in the rap world for the last couple of decades, was part of the Atlanta hip-hop group Outkast. One of his most iconic verses opens the song "Int'l Players Anthem" by the group UGK.


ANDRE 3000: (Rapping) So I typed a text to a girl I used to see saying that I chose this cutie pie with whom I want to be...

PARKS: But on November 17, he dropped a minimalist, experimental flute album.


PARKS: It shocked pretty much everyone, and it got me thinking about some of the other big swings we've seen from musicians over the years. For that, let's bring in NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. Hey, Stephen.

PARKS: Hey, Miles.

PARKS: So I have to start with this Andre 3000 album, "New Blue Sun." What did you think?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Well, I don't think you should go into this record expecting "Hey Ya!"


THOMPSON: It's not a pop record. As you said. It's an experimental flute album. And I guess what I really like about this record is we live in the streaming era. You and I are not browsing the stacks at Sam Goody or Tower, seeing Andre 3000, plunking down $16 and coming home and being disappointed that it's an experimental flute record. You go to a streaming service, and you try it out.

And what I like about it is you might go into it expecting one thing and find that you're into experimental flute music, and I think that's a really cool thing. I appreciate that he is getting to follow his muse and his vision, making a piece of music that feels true to himself, and we have the opportunity to take it or leave it without having to invest a whole bunch of cash in the process.

PARKS: Well, music does different things, right? I put on this record, and I was like, well, I'm not going to listen to this before I go out, but before I get ready for bed, like, while I'm brushing my teeth, like, that could be more the vibe.


PARKS: I gave you the homework assignment to think of other times that artists have made big, surprising twists like this. What? What did you come up with?

THOMPSON: Well, the first thing that came to mind actually came out earlier this year and was another rapper.


LIL YACHTY: (Singing) Sex symbol, the Black Seminole.

THOMPSON: The rapper Lil Yachty, who makes trap music, put out a psychedelic rock album called "Let's Start Here." And it's fascinating to hear. I mean, Lil Yachty fans were not necessarily expecting him to go down this road of this music that kind of billows out and uses kind of rock forms but in exploratory ways.


LIL YACHTY: (Singing) What's wrong? What's wrong, Mr. Man?

THOMPSON: So yeah. So I mean, Andre 3000 isn't even the first rapper in 2023 to make a wild move like this. There's a long, long history of this going back through the history of recorded music, where people expect one thing and get another. Some artists make a habit of it.

PARKS: Yeah. And it's not just rappers, right?


PARKS: I mean, you have a country musician that you're bringing forward here too, right?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I wanted to talk about Garth Brooks. Garth Brooks, probably the biggest recording artist of the '90s, certainly in terms of record sales, at the end of the '90s put out an album called "Garth Brooks In... The Life Of Chris Gaines."


GARTH BROOKS: (Singing) There's no more waiting.

THOMPSON: It's a concept album where all of the songs are supposed to be performed by this alter ego of Garth Brooks, where he is an Australian pop star named Chris Gaines. And it's very - it's like slick pop music, kind of pop rock music, and he's got this very '90s hairstyle, and he kind of tried to make a go of it. Like, I - you know, me as a country star. Now here I am, a pop star. What do you think?


BROOKS: (Singing) I'm head over heels, and it shows.

THOMPSON: And it's considered, you know, a little bit of a - it's certainly considered a major left turn. And many people think of it as a very misbegotten record in a lot of ways. And it certainly wasn't a hit on the scale of "No Fences" or, you know, or, you know, the music for which he's best known. There's not a "Friends In Low Places" on it. But it's another example of a musician going where the wind takes them and doing something that feels true to themselves in that moment.

PARKS: Yeah, that's what I love exploring is just, like, the why. When you look at any of these records, right? In terms of - not in like, you shouldn't do this, but just it is something to think about. When I was listening to "New Blue Sun," I actually thought of Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska."

THOMPSON: This may be the first time anyone has ever said that.

PARKS: Well, I was just thinking about, like, what's a musician who was known for making kind of loud, a little bit more in-your-face music and then decided, no, like, we're going to turn the volume way down. And I think that's what a lot of people felt when they when they turned on "Nebraska" for the first time. Let's listen to a little bit of "Highway Patrolman."


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain't no good.

PARKS: And this got me wondering, Stephen, like, is there something about age, like, getting older that makes artists just want to make music that's a little quieter?

THOMPSON: I think there's certainly something to that. I mean, there have also been cases where people have gotten older and gotten more experimental or tried to make something louder or more atonal. I think often, it comes down to sort of following the muse where it takes you. In the case of Springsteen, I don't think "Nebraska" was a case of he's getting older. I think it was a case of he found ways to be loud quietly. If you listen to that record, that's not - that record's not necessarily a whisper. You hang on his every word.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Nothing feels better than blood on blood. Taking turns dancing...

THOMPSON: I think what often happens, I think with records that are considered to be wild left turns, is they are more reacting to the weight of expectations. Andre 3000 last put out a record with Outkast in 2006, and he's appeared - you know, he's done guest verses. He's popped up on songs here and there, but he hasn't put out an album in all that time. And I think that can kind of create an enormous weight of expectations where whatever you put out has to be worth it.

And, you know, look at Garth Brooks in the late '90s. You know, Garth Brooks had this, this string of massive, massive records albums that sold more than 10 million copies when that was - when it was possible to do that. And I think there's sometimes, I think, a desire to let the air out of the balloon a little bit and kind of reset expectations and just do something that isn't necessarily undermining your fame but just causing people to take a step back and look at you from a different angle.

PARKS: Right. Well, I mean, it also is worth saying that like the more famous or more successful you get, I feel like the riskier it is, which is part of why the Andre 3000 one is so fascinating is because he's considered by some to be like, the greatest rapper or one of the greatest rappers of all time. I guess, are there mega-successful stars right now who you look at as having done successfully the left-turn thing?

THOMPSON: Well, I think the first two names that spring immediately to mind are Taylor Swift and Beyonce, and they're certainly not releasing albums of experimental flute music. But Taylor Swift, who started out as a pop-country singer, I mean, the whole notion of her tour right now is Eras. You know, it's all the different eras of her career - when she's been a country singer, she's been a pop singer, she's made kind of synthpop music, she's made this kind of duskier folk music, you know, on albums like "Folklore." So she's somebody who's been able to kind of seamlessly build left turns into her career so seamlessly that they don't even feel like left turns.

As for Beyonce, Beyonce, you know, has had, you know, a bunch of records of, like, just big R&B and pop bangers and, with "Renaissance," pivoted to dance music and specifically queer dance music in ways that still felt true to her sound while really radically reinventing it. And so it's interesting, like, not all left turns are one day you're making hip-hop, and the next day, you're making flute music.


BEYONCE: (Singing) You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul, no...

PARKS: Well, NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, thank you so much for playing along.

THOMPSON: Thank you Miles.


BEYONCE: (Singing) I'm telling everybody, everybody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.