Flying Lotus You’re Dead!

[Warp; 2014]

Styles: psychedelic prog-jazz hip hop fusion
Others: Thundercat, Soft Machine, Sonny Sharrock, Samiyam, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock

“It’s not death I fear, it’s being comfortable in a cloud where nothing ever happens.”

As profiled by The FADER and reported elsewhere over the years, Steven Ellison can come off like a bit of an introvert. He is, after all, your typical restless, perpetually unsatisfied creative spirit, learning from anyone and wanting to collaborate with everyone, but also struggling at times to fulfill his complex ambitions. He despises being marginalized (“too big to remain in the underground, too strange an innovator to gain acceptance in the mainstream”), demands new opportunities, and fears the inevitability of being pigeonholed. When he does speak of death, he does vis-a-vis artistic legacy, name-dropping DJ Rashad only to remark that he hadn’t had time on earth to “make his statement.” He seems to want more than anything to create, to change his scene, to bring in new musical life. All signs point to You’re Dead! as a statement of creative rebirth, an auspicious disruption of orthodoxy.

To believe the hype of Flying Lotus up to this point basically means ascribing a lion’s share of trends in modern beatcraft to him and fellow Brainfeeder ilk. So what is really great about You’re Dead! is how downright ignorant of this whole legacy it is, how quickly it eschews the easy trappings of its creator and goes for broke on a plethora of risky ideas. Originally pitched as a straight jazz album, it developed into a variegated 17-song suite, which covers everything from Hancockian jazz fusion and Sharrock prog to breathy R&B and stoned high-caliber rap stomps, somehow in the space of a scant 38 minutes. It sounds nothing like the Steven Ellison of Los Angeles years, or like anything else, really, for better or for worse. You’re Dead! exists in a state of flux, of constant false starts, denials, retreads, diversions, and otherworldly sonic surprises seemingly designed to confuse and bewilder its audience, to reassert Flying Lotus’ status as one of the most unpredictable and malleable artists working today. You’re Dead! sees FlyLo enter his weirdest phase yet: impatient, irreverent, dangerous, with the confidence to not only try new things but to also fail and keep trying.

First off: YMMV with these jazz parts. All compulsion for staking out new musical territory aside, anyone expecting a fresh take on prog and fusion that doesn’t bear those genres’ same shortcomings (hookless, dense, technically impressive but otherwise drab) will likely be a little disappointed. “Moment Of Hesitation,” for example, the touted Herbie Hancock collab, is a shivering mass of plinking keys and bleeps bouncing around in the infinite unknown, more idea than execution, more style than substance. It isn’t that the song is unpleasant, though. It is free and flowy and faithfully in-key — it sketches a fast casual jazz, mise en scene, like fast forwarding to the middle of a Sun Ra record without doing the legwork that gets you there: jazz chops fly freely, and a little pointlessly, with a psychedelic energy that outpaces cognition. It’s following a binding form to this album, evading simple melody in favor of Ellison’s smeary stoner atmospherics and Stephen Bruner’s plucky fills.

Speaking of Thundercat: in the past, Ellison has made no secret of his fondness for the dude, making him a featured collaborator in the first wave of live instrumentation that signaled the most substantial change in FlyLo’s post-L.A. sound. Impeccably smooth and quickly identified, Thundercat’s bass lines have long been a go-to for Ellison when he needed to dress a song up with a touch of chromatic intrigue, another tool in his arsenal that served him best when embellishing sparse songs like “German Haircut” and “Dance Of The Pseudo Nymph.” However, as enjoyable as Bruner’s slick, rubbery bass fills are, his tricks are played out and easy to spot, and their persistent overuse seems to belie the album’s penchant for the wildly new. It becomes apparent that although Ellison has a great reverence for jazz musicians, he isn’t one himself and often defers the technical minutiae of the genre onto his collaborators. In small doses, this works, like on songs where jazz is another ingredient in a larger recipe, but often the jammy fusion skits scattered about rely too much on the contributions of others and fail to find their own voice.

But this is thankfully just one shade of the pink matter that explodes across the record. These meandering jams don’t occupy nearly as much space as they probably did back when this was a double album, leaving lots of room for gorgeous phased acoustics (“Stirring”), shimmering vocal textures (“Siren Song”/”Your Potential//The Beyond”), and even one or two bonafide hits. Twinkling piano melody and live drums (grounded in reality after the comedown of “Fkn Dead”) propel Kendrick Lamar through “Never Catch Me,” as he spits and claws his way free of death’s grasp before giving chase in a sloppy outro, making what might be Ellison’s most patently pop song yet. This is succeeded by the equally stunning “Dead Man’s Tetris,” where Ellison’s alter ego Captain Murphy and Snoop Dogg himself break down existential verses through gunshot percussion and barking synth stabs in a curiously stilted refrain. “Turkey Dog Coma” then pulls off a passable Weather Report impression, anchored on Ellison’s signature quarter-note pulse, which leads to the stark beauty of “Stirring” and the unfuckwithable “Coronus, The Terminator.” After this strong middle section, some of the later songs can sound a little lackluster or ill-conceived (just what is going on with the Dr. Rockso impression on “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep”?), but “The Protest” offers an appropriately cathartic end.

As he tweeted, he considers the entire album to be a jazz record, and he’s on point: although much of the record lacks the formal composition of that music, it all spawned from the same improvisational spirit. You’re Dead! is ostensibly a private repossession of jazz’s rule set on Steven Ellison’s terms. He’s been wood-shedding like a jazz player for years, riffing on ideas and loops and textures the way a pianist learns their scales, and he can now confidently test those skills out on just about any combination of sounds out there, if only to see what happens. In some ways, this succeeds, and in others, it fails entirely. Either way, it cannot be denied that Flying Lotus is alive and well.

Links: Flying Lotus - Warp

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