Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Flying Lotus aims for the heavens on iYou’re Dead!/i

When Flying Lotus says You’re Dead!, he apparently means it. On “Never Catch Me,” off the musician’s new record, Kendrick Lamar raps as if in mid-rapture, tugged heavenward but clinging to earth with almost Biblical language: “And I can sing song and I can unite with you that I love, you that I like.” Rapping as Captain Murphy, FlyLo pictures a bullet in his own head; Snoop Dogg greets him at the gate, already dead himself. Angel Deradoorian’s “Siren Song” sounds like breathing, increasingly labored, then cut short.

On last year’s surprise Captain Murphy record, Stephen ”Flying Lotus” Ellison wanted to alternately indoctrinate listeners into a cult and murder them. It came across as a goof—at the very least, it showed him having fun—but the threats turned out to be real. You’re Dead! is a grand ol’ apocalypse, a 40-minute journey to the other side. Flying Lotus has always been interested in the extraterrestrial—on “Do The Astral Plane,” for example, he directly anticipated this album’s skippy embrace of the afterlife. But that track was a quick stop on the much larger journey of 2010’s sometimes abrasive Cosmogramma, which mixed instrumental beats with dubstep, free jazz, IDM, and Thom Yorke, and seemed designed to impress, first and foremost. You’re Dead! has more in common sonically with his follow-up, 2012’s cooler, more ambient Until The Quiet Comes.

Instrumental hip-hop has long suffered from the “beat tape” mentality, in which producers look at albums as showcases of different production techniques rather than front-to-back artistic statements. FlyLo has always bucked that notion. Part of his appeal is his reverence for the album as a format—big-name guests emerge as merely part of a scene—and You’re Dead! is his most confidently structured work yet. The front-to-back hydroponic thump of his earliest albums is almost completely absent. Instead, the tracks, full of smooth-jazz bliss-outs and warm, sustained drones, are organized in waves: the romantic crest of “Siren Song” seems to sigh throughout “Turtles,” and Thundercat’s “Descent Into Madness” feels like a preamble to the paranoid scat of “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep.” When a track does hit the way we expect a hip-hop track to (as on “Coronus, The Terminator” or “Obligatory Cadence”), its rhythm emerges from the ether of its surroundings. Making tracks that interlock like this is perhaps easier when they’re all only a minute or two, but You’re Dead! holds together. It evades easy three- or four-act structural analyses; after five minutes of Herbie Hancock fusion, listeners get to that mythically great Kendrick verse, and the sweet thereafter remains largely amorphous and beautiful.

Like DJ Premier or Kurt Cobain before him, Flying Lotus is an artist whose influences are almost curatorial, representing a unified take on music history. Here he seems to be pulling as much from Fennesz and Vespertine as Stankonia and DJ Shadow. Over the course of five albums, he has mastered instrumental hip-hop, then stuffed it to bursting with these new ideas; he now seems to be playing only to the genre’s ghosts. (“Hold up, me and Dilla bout to blow some trees,” he says at one point here.) But he probably has more in common, oddly enough, with Talk Talk, who traced a similar path from formal excellence toward more fractured forms of sonic expression. Both have a sense of faith in their work—of earnest, prayerful searching—that finds resolution in moments of wild-eyed beauty. You’re Dead!, then, is a microcosm of FlyLo’s career: hip-hop as a portal to the sublime. Rappers have been telling us as much for years.

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