About halfway through an interview published in GQ in October, André 3000 blithely talked about mending himself and satisfying guilt. He wasn’t, of course, talking directly about those things, but rather about the line of hand-drawn, bootleg Anita Baker merch he’d recently made. He remembered that his late mother, Sharon Benjamin-Hodo, once bought Baker cassettes off a guy who regularly passed through the nail salon she worked at with boxes full of them. André and his mother enjoyed those tapes together. It’s the kind of simple, beautiful memory that becomes bittersweet when ladened with the ache of loss.
Sharon Benjamin-Hodo passed away on May 28, 2013, one day after André’s 38th birthday. His father, Lawrence Walker, died a year later. Early Sunday morning, the enigmatic, reclusive artist generously let us in on his emotional reckoning. He joined Instagram on Mother’s Day and posted an old Polaroid from his younger years, along with screenshots of his final text message exchange with his mother, and a broader note: “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,” read the caption. “Link in bio.” The link leads to 22 minutes of new music: a heavy, meandering, 17-minute jazz orchestration titled “Look Ma No Hands,” and a light and wistful ballad, “Me&My (To Bury Your Parents).”’
“Look Ma No Hands” feels like a purge, and it’s difficult to describe beyond that. It could be about nothing or everything. André, on bass clarinet, builds tension through dissonant chord progressions, materializing a singular stream of consciousness. Put another way: He erratically bleats away while James Blake plays the piano and the song — which has no vocals and, again, is 17 minutes — melts, hardens, transforms, then evaporates. This left turn is surprising, but not wholly unexpected. Speaking to Complex in August, André seemed to extinguish the hope, for good, 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 said. He may have found a second life as an experimental jazz musician. It’s definitely too soon to say.
In scope, “Me & My” is narrower, to a much larger emotional effect. This song also leans heavily on the piano, this time played by Kevin Kendrick, who’s worked with Outkast since Big Boi and Dre Present … Outkast in 2001, and perhaps most notably on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Kendrick handled the keys on “Hey Ya,” but also on the less-trumpeted and far more dreary “She’s Alive,” on which André sings in a truly strange voice about a hardworking single mother and an incapable father he never quite condemns. Fifteen years later, on “Me&My,” André seems to make his peace, and sings sweetly about the good times —
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
— which now come hand-in-hand with that specific ache of loss. In the song’s most heart-rending moment, André recalls his father, who sipped cognac and kept everyone laughing. “I was much happier when he was around,” he intones before taking a ragged breath, “when he was around.” André is not the same, but not necessarily worse off. That’s the simple truth of loving someone who’s no longer there: You are someone before, and then you are a different person after. On “Me&My,” André mourns his parents, and in a way, the person he once was.
What’s remarkable is that, after what felt like an interminable period of spotlight aversion — aside from the odd, curmudgeonly guest verse every now and then — André 3000 has returned with such deeply personal music. “Me&My” doesn’t strike me as single preceding some larger project, and “Look Ma No Hands” is entirely too long and experimental to have been made with anything commercial in mind. None of this portends the mythical solo album we’ve been pining for; we’re still just as likely to never hear from André again as we were before this release. But at the very least, we know he’s doing OK.