Very Much Alive, Ready To Die
Flying Lotus has always been widely admired at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where all students are trained in the studio techniques at which Steven Ellison is such a wizard. His ability to achieve commercial viability while pursuing a recognizable muse is an ideal for many of these aspiring music entrepreneurs, as all the Institute's students are trained to think of themselves. So it's no surprise that these are the third and fourth Flying Lotus papers I've received -all first assignments, "300 words on an artist you like." Nor is it surprising that both reference Ellison's family relationship to Alice and John Coltrane, a fact few journalists can’t resist. Much more surprising is that both writers are women asserting their claim to an especially male-identified subgenre -electronic music, and jazz-inflected electronic music at that. And so is the sheer quality of the work.
Annie Kissiah sticks mostly to the technical stuff, which she describes with impressive command of detail and linguistic facility both metaphorical and concrete. Her description of FlyLo's sonic palette is detailed and succinct. And after a first draft immersed in genealogy, Priscilla Bajomo rose to a casual challenge I considered essentially unanswerable: what the hell right does this guy have to call an album You're Dead!? I know the backstory, the sense of personal loss that haunted him as he worked. But did he really address a theme like mortality in music that prides itself on its abstraction as well as its groove? While I can't swear Ellison would agree, Bajomo makes a real go of answering that challenge.
Together, these two little pieces pretty much encapsulate why teaching at the Institute is so satisfying for someone who's devoted his professional life to writing about music. -- Robert Christgau
By Annie Kissiah
It’s painful to realize how much electronic music has fallen victim to the endlessly recycled formula of American EDM--static song structures backed by robotic beats made of ubiquitous samples that have long since gone mainstream. Flying Lotus is the rare artist to strike a balance between electronic innovation and melodic accessibility while remaining loyal to his musical roots: jazz.
In the grand-nephew of Alice and John Coltrane, this love of jazz isn’t surprising. But Flying Lotus’s approach to production is also heavily influenced by his experience as a kid born in LA in 1983, where he was soon engulfed by the exciting new sounds of hip-hop. This wasn’t the most obvious combination of genres. Certainly early hip-hop groups like Stetsasonic and Digable Planets seasoned their grooves with upright basses, live drum kits, and alto sax licks, anticipating some of the innovations of alternative hip-hop and its cousins. But they lacked the rhythmic feel and melodic freedom Coltrane perfectly captures in his frenet1ic, high-flying jazz.
Because FlyLo is unafraid to dip his toe into many pools of style, his beats function as a hybrid of experimental hip-hop instrumentals, IDM, and glitch, with trip-hop and world music elements occasionally bubbling to the surface. But the caliber of his beats isn’t achieved merely by stirring a multi-genre melting pot. He is renowned for his stuttering textural buzzes, his crisp clicks, his hypnotic harps, his lo-fi analog strings that breathe with the beat, and his swirling layers of atmospheric pads that immerse the listener in a convincing metaphysical universe. His drumbeats are the gravitational pull that hold these ambient elements to a rhythmic foundation. Consisting of loosely thumping kicks, potent offbeat percussion, and perpetually evolving patterns, his beats emulate the flawed, fluctuating feel of a live drummer with remarkable acuity. And if that’s not enough, his bass player, Thundercat, complements many of his songs with manic, fluttering solos that strangely evoke the speed and style of Dick Dale, imparting yet another electrifying layer of melodic detail and playful complexity.
Flying Lotus is one of the few electronic artists who appeals to both theory junkies and notation-blind producers. I have no doubt he will continue to fearlessly plunge into many sonic seas.
By Priscilla Bajomo
When death is imminent, our thoughts will likely be scattered, chaotic, and panicked. Like those final moments, Steven Ellison’s You’re Dead! is a chaotic journey from start to finish, with the electronic producer exploring human mortality in jazz polyrhythms and trippy synthesized soundscapes. The album opens in a state of instability as swells of orchestral strings crescendo into a procession of glitchy keyboards and stuttering horns. This clusters into “Tesla,” whose dissonant descending chords and quick shuffling drum rhythms wouldn’t sound out of place on a ‘ 70’s jazz-fusion record.
As is well-known, Steven Ellison a/k/a Flying Lotus is great-nephew to jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane. Miles Davis pianist Herbie Hancock also contributed to You’re Dead! , and it’s unsurprising that it bears a resemblance to Bitches Brew, unapologetically pushing the limits of jazz using rock, psychedelia, and improvisation. Yet while it’s common for jazz and fusion tracks to last 15 or 20 minutes, it’s getting hard to find a FlyLo track that passes the two-minute mark. A significant number of Ellison’s closest family died young, and like an unfulfilled life cut short, most songs build rapidly but fail to climax. In the short minute of “Eyes Above,” Ellison stutters through a programmed Dilla-style beat, a Thundercat bassline, and jazzy live drums. Each element flickers swiftly by, evoking the final moments before death where humans witness their whole life “flash before their eyes.” Even You’re Dead!’s longest and most accessible track, “Never Catch Me,” flees abruptly into a frantic interlude, mirroring the protagonist’s suspicion that death is both unforeseen and on the horizon. Lotus twists and turns, manipulating time and by simultaneously pushing and summoning uncertainty by pulling his rhythms against each other. The snare in the airy “Siren Song” sits comfortably some milliseconds behind the beat, while a choir loop drowned in tremolo quickens, retreating from the tempo. This is juxtaposed against menacingly slow cadences, creating an illusion that time no longer exists.
Each voice on the album has something different to say about death. Captain Murphy--FlyLo’s rapper alter ego--fails to flow at times, yet his low-pitched, confusing tone still complements Lotus’s topsy-turvy production. Kendrick Lamar accepts an “all-consuming darkness,” while Snoop Dogg literally confronts murder. “We will live on forever,” are the last words heard on You’re Dead!, an opposing promise of “eternity” after 36 minutes solely concerning death. Yet ironically, this final message fades out, leaving a sense of both hope and denial. We will all die. But FlyLo’s gender-bending references are celebratory, acknowledging the impact of his late friends, family, and mentors without sounding mournful. Lotus’s music is kaleidoscopic despite its focus on unearthly themes. It’s equally jazz, hip-hop, electronic, and rock, living through the spirits of his deceased forebears’ innovations.
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