Flying Lotus - You're Dead!
by Rob Scott
Upon a kaleidoscopic backdrop of swirling reds, blues, and yellows, LA-based music producer, Steven Ellison (a.k.a. Flying Lotus) stands shirtless, with his hands raised towards his face, as if in a state of religious ecstasy or euphoria. Instead of facial features, his head appears to have been hollowed out, and from the resulting hole emits a beaming white light, evocative of the divine. Scattered around are six others, blood-spattered and naked, as if recently expelled from the womb in some kind of post-mortem rebirth.
The fantastically crazy album artwork of Flying Lotus’ fifth LP, You’re Dead!, aptly embodies the LP’s themes of death and rebirth, alongside its wild and colourful sounds. Although primarily an electronic music producer, anyone who has listened to Flying Lotus before, especially his 2010, Cosmogramma, will know that the labels of hip-hop, experimental, and most notably jazz fusion, can be equally applicable. You can also expect to hear smatterings of orchestral music, sampled power tools, and video game sound effects. Yet despite all these seemingly conflicting genres and sounds, his music maintains a cohesive sound, and is rarely gimmicky. Once acquainted with FlyLo, you can identify his production, regardless of the genre that he is delving into.
Perhaps influenced by his late great aunt and uncle, pioneering jazz musicians Alice and John Coltrane, jazz is more prominent than ever on this new release. The album is scattered with instrumental tracks featuring free jazz saxophone, massively syncopated jazz drumming, and dense sections of improvisation, all at breakneck speed and intensity. Even veteran keyboardist, Herbie Hancock, makes a brief appearance on Tesla, which sounds as though it could be a direct cut from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Do not be put off. This is not the toe-tapping conservative jazz enjoyed by grandparents and geography teachers - this is the jazz of drugs, psychedelia, and shamanism, characterised by speed, dissonance, and schizophrenic shifts of sound.
While You’re Dead! is certainly Flying Lotus’ most acoustic album, he still stays true to his electro and hip-hop roots. This is most evident on fifth track and lead single, Never Catch Me, featuring Kendrick Lamar. Alongside an infectious repeated piano riff and jazz drums, the track has some of the best hip-hop beats I’ve heard all year and Kendrick, with his tongue twister flow and intricate rhyme schemes, continues to prove himself to be perhaps the best rapper of his generation. As the instrumentation grows, Kendrick’s voice increases in intensity and speed, until a climax whereupon we are dropped into a virtuosic bass solo courtesy of Thundercat, before settling into a catchy hook. The following track, Dead Man’s Tetris, featuring Snoop Dogg and elusive rapper, Captain Murphy (who was revealed to be an alter-ego of FlyLo himself), is a bone-throw to Flying Lotus’ hip-hop fans, sounding very like Tyler The Creator, but with better production.
Structurally, You’re Dead! follows the lead of its predecessor. Despite being nineteen tracks long, the album only stretches to 38 minutes, with most tracks being more like manic musical sketches, rather than fully developed songs or pieces. It is an album which should be listened to from beginning to end, with most songs blending, sometimes seamlessly, others jarringly, into the next. While I can appreciate that this is a deliberate and original stylistic choice, it is also, for me, the album’s biggest weakness. Jazz tracks like Tesla or Moment Of Hesitation (perhaps a nod to his uncle’s piece, A Moment’s Notice) are dying to be longer. As soon as the track settles into a groove or develops a musical idea, we are flitted onto the next. Despite this potential flaw in the album’s form, almost every track is exciting, fully engaging, and completely mad - hence why I want each of them to last longer. Similarly, while some tracks may seem uninteresting on their own, such as the relatively static Ready Err Not, within the context of the album they seem to work. The only completely skip-able track is Descent Into Madness, in which Thundercat sings a horribly jarring melody in a cringe-worthy falsetto voice.
As a development upon his previous work, You’re Dead! is certainly a step in the right direction. All Flying Lotus needs is greater focus and attention to the progression of individual tracks. Through the release of one of the best singles of the year, Never Catch Me, and by bringing jazz fusion to the forefront, he shows the potential to exceed most other producers in his musical virtuosity, originality, and madness. For an album about death, this record is feeling very much alive.