#16 – Flying Lotus is stuck in a rut. The LA producer built a unique and remarkably compelling sound with his breakthrough album Los Angeles in 2008, squelching electronics, thumping tribal beats and pure injections of soul and hip-hop seemingly too complex and rhythmically dense for anyone to actually rap over. 2010’s Cosmogramma expanded that sound massively, incorporating frenetic jazz and beautiful, dusty acoustic sounds, creating organic alien landscapes that seemed to reach back through the history of black music and beyond. The earthier and more nocturnal Until the Quiet Comes was less of a leap, a slight shift of tone and a far less memorable effort. Steven Ellison’s latest album could have been an opportunity for a big new direction, but unfortunately it’s much of the same.
You’re Dead! is a quick listen and most of it feels underdeveloped. Each album since Cosmogramma has been a patchwork of short songs and abrupt shifts, but the material here flitters in and out of frame so quickly it never has time to take shape into something more interesting. Take the record’s initial stretch for instance, a set of four brief sketches linked most interestingly by a welcome new element, a stuttering, distorted guitar figure. But nothing has the chance to develop or take on any kind of structure before the album moves on. And those new, exciting elements are few and far between. The work of bassist Thundercat, originally a welcome and invigorating addition to Flying Lotus’s sound, has gradually become a drag, and a distraction. His spiraling, aimless bass worms its way into track after track, so familiar at this point that Ellison might as well just keep a bank of samples and save himself the trouble of bringing Thundercat in to record.
Given more breathing room and a hint of a conventional form, FlyLo’s work can still shine. Though the production is familiar, Thundercat smothered jazz, “Never Catch Me” comes alive the second Kendrick Lamar begins delivering his fiery verse about outrunning death. Death is the common theme of the album. “Dead Man’s Tetris” presents a wobbly, sample-heavy picture of a confused mind seconds after death, with the help of Ellison’s hip-hop alter ego Captain Murphy and a confident Snoop Dogg. On “Coronus, the Terminator” frequent collaborator Niki Randa leads a gospel style, angel choir funeral song for mankind itself, a piece of distinctive beauty that proves what Ellison is still capable of.
Death is a rich theme and one that Flying Lotus approaches with humor and invention, but he doesn’t approach it explicitly often enough, apparently content with the sketches and half songs that populate most of the record. He can keep covering the same territory in each album as long as he wants but as a once fervent fan, I’m tiring of it. I miss hearing songs that expand and transform and slowly take shape, I miss dancefloor rhythms and sonic overload. But even if he left all that behind completely, I’d be satisfied just to hear something that sounds new or fresh. Flying Lotus has shown that he’s capable of incredible transformations, hopefully he has at least one more left in him.