No other artist seems as intent to abide in a state of flux as Flying Lotus. Locating himself at boundaries blasted open by the collision of hip-hop and future dub, Steven Ellison’s aesthetic is difficult to pinpoint discursively, less by design than by the very nature of his working method. With Cosmogramma, Ellison makes a decisive leap forward into the realm of Afrofuturism, abstracting and recombining the past as a cathartic reflection site for future permutations, inscribing thrilling new vectors of sound in the process. He manages the trick of fulfilling expectations while artfully sidestepping them. Critics and interviewers have shackled Ellison with an overdetermined musical identity based on his famous family, but incredibly, Cosmogramma justifies much of this hyperbole. Among all of the other virtual permutations that FlyLo maps out on this album, one clear and pervasive thread is a uniquely rhizomatic growth on the mystical, cosmic jazz pioneered by Sun Ra in the 1950s, and evolved and astrally realigned by Alice and John Coltrane in the ensuing decades. Cosmogramma is the sound of Afro-cosmic jazz technologically proliferating in a thousand new directions at once.
For all of its scene-defining innovations, 2008’s Los Angeles played like a beat tape, a series of twitchy fragments spit out of a hyperactive sensibility, still wet from birth. It betrayed its lineage, building on the complex tonality and upended beatcraft of J. Dilla and Madlib, perturbing the formula with an intensive relation to low-end and a fidgety predilection for the barely-reined-in noise of compressed samples. In the two years since LA dropped, FlyLo has established himself as the most visible member of an emerging group of like-minded artists and soundmakers centered in and around the titular city. Many of these are associated with Ellison’s own Brainfeeder label/collective — artists such as The Gaslamp Killer, Gonjasufi, Daedelus and matthewdavid. However, for all this talk of a “scene” and all the creative cross-pollination and collaboration this supposedly entails, LA was a curiously solo affair. Often claustrophobic, cerebral, and bound to its own digital origins, collaboration did not seem to be the chief modus on Los Angeles.
Everything changes with Cosmogramma. This album plays like an album, with a strong aesthetic through-line that points the way forward even when it follows strange and barely-related tangents, delighting in its own stochastic multiplicities, but always aligning around its central attractor. This tendency is neatly illustrated by the Fieldlines application, created as an interactive correlate to the album. Cosmogramma also makes good on the collective aspirations of Brainfeeder, with nearly every track hinging upon key contributions from collaborators including harp virtuoso Rebekah Raff, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Thundercat, and string arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. This culminates in a handful of tracks that all but obscure their digital pieces in favor of organic jazz workouts and emotive string symphonies in miniature. This organic quality is emphasized by tracks featuring guest vocalists, such as Laura Darlington’s breathy Astrud Gilberto-esque vocals on “Table Tennis” or Thundercat’s spaced-out scatting on “Do the Astral Plane.” Even though Thom Yorke’s vocals on “…And the World Laughs With You” are chopped, resampled, and digitally sedimented by layers of glitch, the pure sticky humanity emerges in spite of itself in the haunting refrain: “I just need to know you’re out there somewhere.”
The sound of Cosmogramma is established from its first track: dense and galactic, a lush beatscape that buries layers of adulterated samples in swirls of digital buzz, filling the low-end with throb and wobble, and the midrange with grainy snares, sampled percussion, and chunky, detuned, downsampled synths. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to FlyLo before. What has changed is a newfound sense of risk: a radical contingency, a potential space for melody opened by the presence of live instrumentation. Every so often, the overbearing clatter pauses for a dreamy harp glissando or a hand-played bass melody followed by Atwood-Ferguson’s cinematic string progressions, providing both relief from layers of digital plastication, even as it adds a further layer of mystification. FlyLo has always been good at making music that was recorded five minutes ago sound like it was sourced from a scratchy Impulse! label LP from 1961, and the increased presence of newly recorded live instrumentation, once given the FlyLo treatment, adds a further level of temporal dislocation for potential sample-spotters. Tracks like “Zodiac Shit” and “Arkestry” are a case in point; where previously it would have been easy to assume those warbly vintage synths, syncopated drum solos, and spooky strings were samples, here they sound as unstuck in time as everything else.
This is where FlyLo’s singular contribution to the ongoing utopian mythmaking project becomes clear. Not content simply to mine the Afrofuturist cultural archive for samples, artwork, and track titles, Ellison instead adapts the most radical dimensions of Afrofuturism into vital and dynamic soundmaking techniques in the present. Cosmogramma is futurist in form, rather than content. Reliving the future’s past through a constellation of references to cosmic jazz, psychedelic funk, hip-hop, and techno, the music of Flying Lotus never fixates long enough to crystallize; any groove that spontaneously emerges is quickly subverted, churned up in favor of a creating new maps and new vectors. This is sometimes exhausting but always rewarding, a deafening, dissociative DMT hallucination in which the history of all utopian striving is somehow condensed, abstracted, made to sing its own story through radically new vocal chords.