A first trailer for French director Claire Denis’s new film High Life arrived yesterday. It’s a pretty unusual sci-fi about a group of criminals hoping to commute their prison sentences by volunteering to be blasted toward a black hole in a spaceship, all the while being sexually experimented on by scientists.
That André 3000 – real name André Benjamin – pops up on screen in a supporting role shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the course he’s chosen to take since establishing himself as one of the all-time greatest rappers with Outkast has been atypical to say the least.
How to age gracefully in hip hop? The genre is so much about youth and about struggle that it can be hard to navigate once you’ve made it. Are you going to keep writing about the streets but from a five-star hotel? Are you going to write about the loneliness of that hotel room, to a chorus of tiny violins? Maybe you’ll keep pumping out albums, to less and less impact, or maybe you’ll sit in the Oval Office and talk to the president about “hydrogen” planes and the concept of a multiverse?
Benjamin has taken a different route since he hung up his Outkast bowtie almost a decade ago. He’s become a sort of cultural shaman-cum-mercenary, brought in by other rappers and musicians who know he will bring a little magic to their project, and a killer blow with a verse.
When you look back at his output over the past few years, it’s astonishing just how much the outlier has contributed to hip hop without ever formerly releasing a solo album or even a single.
In 2012, Frank Ocean asked him to tell a tale on Channel Orange‘s “Pink Matter”, and it ended up being a late high point to the album. When Ocean returned with Blonde four years later, he brought Benjamin back for another guest verse. This time it was an absurdist (”so low that I can see under the skirt of an ant”), lightning fast rap that intentionally jars with the first half of the album. The record wouldn’t be the same without it. Benjamin was memorable on Drake’s “The Real Her” and Erykah Badu’s earworm “Hello”. He added chorus flair to Solange’s “Junie” and Kanye West’s “30 Hours”.
In 2016, Travis Scott realised he needed a little 3000 flair to get his new album Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight jump-started, Benjamin laying down mean, soulful bars on opener “The Ends” that address his wariness of celebrity: “Eh, to them I’m a big d*ck, a cheque and some laughter / I guess it’s all survival but please be careful”.
And it’s not just his big-name friends Benjamin has helped out. The same year, he delivered a thrilling verse on Richmond, Virginia group Divine Council’s “Decemba (Remix)”, before imagining – in a spoken word outro – what a movie sequel to the verse he just spat might be like.
When it comes to his acting career, Benjamin hasn’t been as iconic, but has taken the same scatter-fire approach. There’s a Jimi Hendrix biopic in which he takes the grand leading role (Jimi: All Is by My Side), but then there’s an episode of Adult Swim’s abundantly named cartoon Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio. There’s lighthearted comedy with Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro and then there’s a documentary about a cinematographer caught in a mass arrest while filming Republican protests near Ground Zero (The After Party: The Last Party 3). Occasionally he’ll turn up in a primetime procedural like The Shield or American Crime too.
Benjamin has yet to find a role that will bring him as much acclaim as his raps, but maybe he’s not looking for one. In May, God love him, he released a 17-minute avant garde clarinet instrumental called "Look Ma No Hands" (above). Benjamin doesn’t seem particularly interested in attention, and isn’t bothered about topping it up with a new album every two years like most artists. The landmark solo album or Oscar-winning film role many want may never come, but maybe that’s OK for a man who’s already achieved so much, and he’s now more interested in pursuing eclectic projects, going wherever his creativity takes him.
Either that, or, as he once pointed out in a slogan on one of his infamous jumpsuits during a rare festival appearance: “Life is short. Take more baths.”
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