When an artist such as Flying Lotus warns Rolling Stone that his new album might “mess up the game a little bit,” fans are wise to take notice. In the eight years since his debut, FlyLo has progressed from a jagged, minimalistic blend of trip-hop to something more layered and nuanced, sprinkling in increasingly potent dashes of experimental jazz along the way and becoming perhaps the most recognizable and influential musician within his eccentric movement.
So, the same question that is asked upon each of his releases, what is different on You’re Dead!, his latest? Simply put, he allows his jazz influences to take precedence, swapping roles with his formerly dominant electronic tendencies in order to bask in the lustrous center stage of his production.
This shift seems inevitable for FlyLo, known by day as Steven Ellison. Apart from his biological relation to the wife of bebop icon John Coltrane, Ellison has been working with other jazz-flavored musicians such as Thundercat and Erykah Badu. As a result, his music has taken on a similar taste, and his palate is showing less affinity for Aphex Twin and more for Herbie Hancock. In fact, Hancock himself appears on the album several times, alongside the likes of ex-Dirty Projector Angel Deradoorian, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg.
Fortunately, in spite of the high level of notoriety on his guest list this time around, Ellison never loses sight of his vision. Predictably, Snoop Dogg’s track “Dead Man’s Tetris” is the most conventional, although it may wig out a listener in any other context. The synths are riffy, the beats straightforward and hi-hat-heavy and the lyrical flow lackadaisical. But the remainder of the record is surprisingly even (if more complex), with songs built instead from mostly live drums samples courtesy of ex-Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks.
For instance, Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me” (the obvious first single) manages to blend live and programmed instrumentation. Clap tracks and bass solos coexist, keys and synths blend slickly and all the while, Lamar’s swift delivery sounds as if he’d been rapping over jazz fusion his entire life. Later on, Ellison’s rapper alter ego, Captain Murphy, is given his own dark rant in “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep,” describing an addiction to pills in the most creepy, effects-altered voice heard since the advent of sound recording.
You’re Dead! is dark, it is esoteric and it by no means constitutes easy listening. But although the album may thematically obsess over death, Ellison’s decision to make a more organic sound has given his music new life.