Premature Evaluation: Flying Lotus You’re Dead!
Full disclosure: I am not exactly well-versed in the deep, labyrinthine history of jazz music. Sure, I know my Mingus from my Monk, my Coltrane from my Coleman, but I can’t speak on the lineage of Blue Note Records or tell you which tiny, smoke-filled New York clubs were “the place to be” for jazz in the ’50s and ’60s. I can’t tell you why one particular session of improvisational free jazz is better or worse than another, nor what makes Kind Of Blue somehow even slightly superior to Blue Train. But here’s what I can tell you: I like jazz — well, I like certain kinds of jazz. If pressed to give you a favorite classic jazz album, I’d probably say Miles Davis’ On The Corner, because that is straight-up bonkers music and it grooves like crazy. In the modern sphere, I think Tortoise is one of the all-time greats, and those post-rock pioneers do jazz work unlike anyone else around. (TNT is a necessary record for any lover of instrumental music, jazz or otherwise.) And Squarepusher’s Music Is Rotted One Note is an unprecedented collection of mutant, quasi-electronic jazz, with producer/musician Tom Jenkinson delivering two virtuosic live performances on drums and bass.
I can also tell you that I like Flying Lotus, but I fell in love with him well before he became interested in jazz. After his early flirtations with sci-fi-indebted beatmaking on 1983, the Southern Californian born Steven Ellison honed a sound that would come to define not only his production style but also an entire genre of artists interested in an off-kilter and overtly electronic take on instrumental hip-hop. 2008’s Los Angeles is by all accounts the yardstick with which any “beat scene”-related music is measured, and it could’ve only been properly followed up by a record as unruly, uncompromising, and unexpected as Cosmogramma. The 2010 Flying Lotus LP found the perfect balance between classic beatmaking and fearlessly experimental sounds, still managing to touch on jazz references without transforming the artist’s identity as we knew it. Those early records created the bedrock on which Ellison’s career stands, and it’s hard to imagine him making a name for himself in any other way or with any other kind of music.
All of which is to say that I am uncontrollably — more or less inherently — at odds with the fact that Flying Lotus’ music now owes far more to jazz history than hip-hop or electronic music. It’s very hard for me to not think back on the alternate dimensions of “Camel,” “Melt!,” “GNG BNG,” and “Parisian Goldfish,” or the mind-boggling production that fuels “Pickled!,” “Computer Face//Pure Being,” and “Do The Astral Plane,” while I settle into Ellison’s jazz productions. Until The Quiet Comes was especially difficult in this respect because it turned a microscope onto the airy gusts that would’ve only been quick, quiet blips in previous tracklists. Most signs of vitality came from Thundercat’s whiplash bass riffs or vocal contributors like Erykah Badu, not the unparalleled beatmaking Flying Lotus built his name on. Sure, it was interesting to hear the music to which his late aunt Alice Coltrane had dedicated her life interpreted for a new audience, but Ellison seemed to lose a bit of himself and his own history in the process. Two years later, You’re Dead!, the fifth FlyLo album (fourth for Warp), attempts to confront the energy and personality that Quiet lacked with head-on tenacity. Gone are the soft-jazz motifs and the wistful sentimentality, having been replaced by strident maximalism, twitchy restlessness, and an impending sense of googly-eyed paranoia.
And yes, Ellison’s latest continues to unpack his fascination with jazz. Thundercat’s spidery bass gymnastics are still front and center, the drum samples sound lifted from vintage live recordings, and even legendary pianist/composer Herbie Hancock contributes to the album. The things is, though, I don’t think you have to be into proper jazz to enjoy You’re Dead!, and that is one of its primary strengths. A number of different sounds and styles comprise the music Flying Lotus delivers across his 19-song tracklist; whether it’s laced with adventurous prog-rock or whipping around a Top 40 rap vocal, the jazz of You’re Dead! is rarely served straight. It’s not even on the menu sometimes — like with the cartoony, blown-out beats in “Dead Man’s Tetris,” or the subdued hip-hop hybrid of “Coronus, The Terminator,” or “Ready Err Not”‘s spritely, stripped-down electronics. Over the course of 38 minutes, Ellison tries on all of the wildly varying hats he’s amassed over his eight-year career (even his rap alter-ego Captain Murphy makes a couple appearances), and is somehow able to not come off like a mercurial shapeshifter or an artist interested in pleasing anyone but himself.
It would seem that eclecticism and collaboration have become Flying Lotus’ primary tools, and when they’re properly utilized, the producer deftly carves out the best songs on You’re Dead! Early in the record, Kendrick Lamar shows up on “Never Catch Me” to make a powerful case for reviving the forgotten potential of jazz-centric rap, and he sounds like a maniacal, quick-tongued beat poet doing so. “Tesla” and “Moment of Hesitation” are ambitious, cosmic free jazz sessions of impeccable quality, and neither would’ve been possible without Thundercat and Herbie Hancock lending their phenomenal musicianship to Flying Lotus’ production work. Don’t expect the funk-laced rhythms from Hancock’s Head Hunters LP on You’re Dead!, though. The languages of the mind and the body are mutually exclusive to Ellison, so he’s only trying to make your head nod when he switches out the drum brushes for an MPC. Maybe it’s because I have a predilection for the slinky experimentalism on On the Corner and Music Is Rotted One Note, but I think FlyLo could’ve dialed down the progginess of his jazz from time to time and made room for a solid, jam-friendly groove.
To make a relatable comparison, You’re Dead! is ostensibly the album Cosmogramma would’ve been if Ellison was interested in making jazz from the get-go. Both records zip past you like lightspeed hallucinations, all radiantly blurred and intangible despite the waking consciousness you experience them in. They also benefit from Flying Lotus’ ever-increasing popularity, using larger budgets and high-profile special guests to take his music to the next level. The pacing and tempos are strikingly similar between the LPs, too, but I don’t say this because I think the SoCal beatmaker is repeating himself. I think it’s worth noting because Cosmogramma was a landmark record for Ellison, some might actually call it his best. So even if the stylistic juggling and top-notch contributors on You’re Dead! breathe new life into FlyLo’s production stunts, I wouldn’t say the album resonates as strongly as an album like Cosmogramma. But this isn’t because I don’t like jazz, it’s because I really like Flying Lotus.
You’re Dead is out 10/7 via Warp. Stream it below.