Premature Evaluation: Flying Lotus Flamagra
In 2012, Steven Ellison, bka Flying Lotus, properly introduced his rapping alter ego Captain Murphy on a mixtape called Duality. If he were to continue that theme and reintroduce himself as the many-headed beast he’s become on Flamagra, then a more fitting title for the album would be Multiplicity.
It’s been five years since FlyLo released his Grammy-nominated opus You’re Dead! and to say the producer/rapper/director/composer/label head/festival set slayer has been busy during his main project’s hiatus is an understatement bordering on criminal. Since 2014, FlyLo has been the house DJ on Hannibal Burress’ short-lived late-night show Why? With Hannibal Buress, thrown numerous festival performances that feel more like immersive multimedia installations, signed jazz visionaries Thundercat and Kamasi Washington to his Brainfeeder imprint, scored two short films, made two short films of his own, directed and scored his first feature-length outing Kuso, and scored two more feature-length movies that will soon drop via Brainfeeder’s new film franchise.
Normally it’s excruciatingly boring to list what an artist has been up to between albums (apologies), but in FlyLo’s case the recap is essential because elements of each of the aforementioned projects are imprinted on Flamagra in one way or another. The album is a true culmination of a multitalented artist’s wildly diverse career up to this point. It plays like a Greatest Hits compilation without actually being one, taking the best elements of all his other albums and improving upon them.
On Flamagra, every weapon in FlyLo’s seemingly ever-growing arsenal is at his disposal. When the eerie, elongated soundscape on opener “Heroes” melts into blistering bass flourishes from Thundercat and dense, layered contributions from multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood Ferguson, you know it’s on. With so many elements that sometimes careen into each other, no song is as simple or as complicated as it should seem.
FlyLo’s command of the black American genres of blues, jazz, R&B, funk, and rap keeps Flamagra rooted in a shared history. Intricate boom-bap slappers like “Post Requisite,” “Black Balloons,” “FF4,” and the beginning of the Anderson .Paak-assisted “More” interlace sonic layers that envelop the drums but leave them enough space to properly anchor the soundscapes as they wander. Particularly in the case of Paak’s feature, FlyLo was able to marry the more rap-centric Oxnard Paak with the soulful, funky rasp of the crooning Ventura Paak with a level of synergy that was only approached in moments on Paak’s two albums. The sounds morph right along with Paak’s voice through all of the flows, cadences, inflections, runs, funk tinges, and R&B leanings that his voice possesses.
Denzel Curry benefits from FlyLo’s versatility as well. The Florida spitter’s energy is punctuated with violins, and exalted by gospel choir harmonies, but the steady knock of the simple drums glues everything together. A legend like George Clinton could easily be out of place on an album so experimental and futuristic, but just as when Ellison and Clinton teamed up on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly opener “Wesley’s Theory” (another one of FlyLo’s extracurriculars since You’re Dead!), the funk DNA strewn throughout the album situates the P-Funk leader’s soulful croaks on “Burning Down The House” perfectly. Clinton also gives listeners some familiar FlyLo celestial funk before things get wonderfully weird.
It doesn’t get any weirder than the 16-bit run of the album that begins with the Little Dragon feature “Spontaneous” and ends with “All Spies.” This sect recalls the playfulness of “Sleepy Dinosaur” and “Parisian Goldfish” from Los Angeles and amps them up to a level that Sega Genesis game composers like the masterful Revenge Of Shinobi soundtrack composer Yuzo Koshiro would be proud of. “Spontaneous” sounds like an elevated version of something that could be heard on a level of Sonic The Hedgehog, with Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon sprinkling in dreamy vocals over Thundercat’s funky, irresistible flare. “Takashi” doubles down on the video game aesthetic with help from Syunshake Ono’s digital funk sensibilities and some alluring Caribbean vibes. “Pilgrim Side Eye” goes full video game bonus level with a controlled cacophony that has you thinking Dr. Robotnik could pop out of nowhere. “All Spies” brings everything back down to earth with a more mechanistic dance feel and transitions oddly well into the Tierra Whack-assisted “Yellow Belly.” Every sound sits in a distinct place and even chaotic moments have a deft semblance of order.
The tracks that compare to a film score are eerily serene, and that’s where FlyLo’s experience as a director shines brightest. They serve as much needed breathers from the dizzying range of sounds the genre fusionist can employ both within tracks and from track to track. Narration from one of Ellison’s multidimensional brethren David Lynch on lead single “Fire Is Coming” exemplifies the OST feel that these tracks have. “Andromeda,” “Say Something,” Mac Miller tributes “Find Your Way Home” and “Thank U Malcom,” the Solange and Robert Glasper-assisted “Land Of Honey,” and closer “Hot Oct” all serve as palate cleansers, readying listeners for the next high-octane moment. Though they may seem a little bit boring on first listen, they are perfectly-timed moments of respite.
On paper, all of the disparate sonic sensibilities, voices, and genres coexisting in the same body of work seems overwhelming, but in practice it isn’t. Flamagra is paced thoughtfully and expertly stitched together so that it rarely feels like a sensory overload despite weighing in at a hefty 27 tracks. It combines the already multifaceted producer that Flying Lotus already was with the new skills he has discovered while deviating from his one-album-every-two-years formula. The form mirrors his growth, and it projects a vision of the places he might go from here.
FlyLo has a definitive monster on his hands with Flamagra — a monster that some may find as difficult to digest as the images in his film Kuso. But anyone who walks away from this album without fully taking it in is missing out on something special. Not only is it FlyLo’s most ambitious and fully realized album to date, it’s easily the most grandiose hip-hop beat tape of this decade, one that sets a new standard for the form. Beyond the limitations of that category it’s a clinic in combining seemingly discordant sounds. Genre-blending as a descriptor is thrown around pretty often, but there are very few albums that even approach exemplifying it as well as Flamagra.
Flamagra is out 5/24 via Warp Records. Pre-order it here.