As the artist who goes by Andre 3000 casually put it mid-performance, "It's been a while" since he was in the city he helped solidify as a hip-hop capital.

It's been nearly 10 years since Andre and his partner in Atlanta rap act OutKast, Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, headlined a sold-out, three-night stand at Centennial Olympic Park — and two decades since the duo released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, now the best-selling rap album of all time. 

Then, seemingly out of the blue, the 48-year-old Atlanta native born Andre Benjamin released a solo, jazz debut titled New Blue Sun in November of last year. And after multi-night stops in New York, Michigan, Illinois and California, this Feb. 28  show at the Variety Playhouse was the second of six in the city through the week.

A T-shirt for sale at an Andre 3000 concert

A T-shirt for sale at an Andre 3000 concert.

Credit: Sonia Murray / GPB News

Walking center stage in blue, pin-striped overalls, trench coat, topped with a red beanie frayed at the end, the artist placed a lit incense stick in a plant at the front of the stage (next to the rubber duck and milky figurine) and began what he is starting to describe as "a spontaneous composition."

"No bars. No phones," reads one of the T-shirts for sale in the lobby — a play on cellphones and smartwatches having to be locked away — while at the same time a reminder to the audience that one of hip-hop's most beloved rappers would not be rapping or "spitting bars," as the lingo goes.

Instead, Benjamin spent the majority of the set cooing into various kinds of flutes — when he wasn't occasionally brushing the chimes or letting out a primal call. (Think Morris Day at the opening of The Time's 1984 funk single, "Jungle Love.")

It was mostly a night of sprawling, calming, unpredictable, mood-setting for the 600-plus in attendance. Many have shorthanded it as "spa music" or "music to meditate to."

"We're making it up on the spot," Benjamin explained mid-set.

And it very much felt like it. Like the privilege of getting to watch a creative mind at work, assisted by: Carlos Niño, a producer-percussonist Andre says he immediately bonded with when he moved to Venice Beach, Calif., six years ago; an East Atlanta Village guitarist (Nate Mercereau) who brilliantly, selectively colors with the guitar more than rocking out with it; a keyboardist straight out of musical masseuse Alice Coltrane's ashram (Surya Botofasina); and a Newnan, Ga., percussionist (Deantoni Parks) who set the steady, enveloping, tribal tone. 

With reserved seats ranging from $79.50 to $250, the New Blue Sun Live tour could arguably be the priciest ticket in Variety

With reserved seats ranging from $79.50 to $250, Andre 3000's New Blue Sun Live tour could arguably be the priciest ticket in Variety Playhouse's near 50 years as a music venue. (But how much would you pay to see a rare talent create?)

Credit: Sonia Murray / GPB News

"It's not that precious, but it's precious at the same time."

In another break, Benjamin offered: "I know y'all are probably wondering ... I mean, I didn't plan to be the flute [expletive]. 

"I didn't plan to be in OutKast, either."

He and Big Boi were just watching videos one day, he recalled, and they decided to try it.

Same with the flute. Once he got ahold of the woodwind instrument, "I couldn't stop playing. I couldn't put it down."

This was a concert, however, and he had to at least hit pause.

But not before trying the usual, concert call-and-response to close this in-every-way atypical show.

"Say free Young Thug!"

"Free Young Thug," many in the audience repeated.

"From whatever ails him," he added.

Then again: "Free Young Thug!"

And one voice in the crowd yelled a very distinct: "I'm not saying that."

(Quick context: Atlanta rapper Young Thug is currently on trial facing racketeering and gang conspiracy charges.)

The ever-nimble, rapper-turned-flautist recovered quickly: "We love you Big Boi!"

And the audience loudly affirmed: "We love you Big Boi!"

Days later at a new venue (Morehouse College's Ray Charles Performing Arts Center) and in a familiar ensemble (coat, striped overalls, topped with the red frayed hat), Benjamin engaged in a conversation as free-wheeling as his performance the other night.

Billed as a Sony Music University class, the dozens of aspiring music industry students from Morehouse and Spelman colleges, Clark Atlanta University and Georgia State University should have known this wasn't the usual lecture.

Smartphones and watches were locked in Yondr cases again. Boxed water was offered, And inside, their seats were on the stage, facing the auditorium. With three chairs also on the stage, facing them.

Joycelyn Wilson, Assistant Professor of Black Media Studies at the Ivan Allen College at Georgia Tech, looks on as Andre 3000

Joycelyn Wilson (left), assistant professor of Black Media Studies at Georgia Tech, looks on as Andre 3000 (center) thoughtfully addresses the Sony Music University class. No question seemed off-limits. "I love talking to y'all," he said.

Credit: Gem Hale

"You're probably wondering what the hell is going on?" joked Professor Justin Henderson (also a Grammy Award-winning producer known as Henny Tha Bizness).

And it clearly took a minute before the students got it. 

Next, doors were locked. Announced guests Fahamu Pecou (visual artist) and Georgia Tech professor Joycelyn Wilson took two of the three seats.

Then Wilson introduced the surprise guest as "A3K." Gasps.

"How are y'all feeling?" Benjamin asked as he took his seat.

Only one student in attendance managed an audible response: "Overwhelmed!"

And Benjamin? "It feels awesome to be home."

To begin, Andre had everyone join him in taking a deep breath. Exhale. Then all kinds of questions — and answers — came out.

What is art?

("I think it's art when you are presenting sounds. Presenting visuals...The start of a conversation outside of yourself.")

What is stillness to you?

("Nothing is really still...Stillness is being OK with moving.")

The appeal of the flute?

(He gets to "harness and manage wind...Wind is life.")

Not that things didn't get more specific, like, without prompting, Benjamin addressed how difficult it must be growing up and finding creative voices, with the influence of social media.

There, he warned, you are "seeing the greatest things first."

"All great things start small."

Soon he conversation turned to his oft-played, onstage declaration at the 1995 Source Awards that "the South got something to say." But he added,"it was out of nervousness" because they had been booed in the New York venue after winning best new artist.

"They didn't know us well enough," he said.

"This city has birthed a lot of pioneers, people that are pushing things," he said. "There's just so much from when [OutKast] started, even before us, from Dungeon Family and what Future is doing, and Playboi Carti."

"I'm almost in amazement," he said, smiling. "It's cool to be kind of running [expletive] for like the last 30 years."

After spending about as much time with this group on stage as he did on the Variety's the other night, it was time to pause again.

But not before another collective deep breath. Exhale.

Then Benjamin added that he learned that saying/mouthing the word "Who"  could help relieve anxiety as well.

Like "who-who-who-who," he demonstrated. The same primal sound he was making the other night at the Variety Playhouse.

The only people who may have been anxious or nervous at the Morehouse event, though, were the one or two caught trying to capture this intimate gathering on their personal cell.

Like the T-shirt said: No bars. No phones.

"I look up to innovators like Pharrell, Andre 3000, Tyler the Creator, Stevie Wonder, Jacob Collier," noted Paul "APSTL" Eko

"I look up to innovators like Pharrell, Andre 3000, Tyler the Creator, Stevie Wonder, Jacob Collier," noted Paul "APSTL" Ekomwen, a sophomore accounting major at CAU. "I want to pave waves in sound, designs, live experiences and more."

Credit: Gem Hale