After exploring the urban jungle in “Los Angeles” (2008), embarking on a journey through space and time in “Cosmogramma” (2010) and capturing the essence of the night in “Until The Quiet Comes” (2012), Steven Ellison, also known as Flying Lotus, is at it again. This time, he turns to his own life and experience of loss to inspire a fifth studio album, “You’re Dead!,” which was released earlier this month.
The exclamation point at the end of the title perfectly represents the playful nature with which Flying Lotus has tackled the subject of death. He does not mourn, but rather celebrates those who have recently passed in his life. According to an interview with Fader, Lotus’ great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, who died in 2007, was a major influence for him. Coltrane’s album “Lord of Lords” (1973), written as a quasi ode to her late husband John Coltrane, inspired FlyLo to mimic her style of paying homage to the people in her life. His relationship with such an influential jazz musician has seeped into his work from the beginning. A fan of genre-blending, Flying Lotus features jazz along with experimental beats and hip-hop in his music. The death of one of his friends, Austin Peralta, a pianist featured on Flying Lotus’ “DMT Song” (2012), also earned an homage — the circumstances of his death are reflected in “The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep.”
Instead of mourning the loss of his loved ones through melancholic pieces, Flying Lotus takes a more unconventional approach with this somewhat unsettling, playful work. Starting with the album art, designed by Japanese manga artist Shintaro Kago, the depiction of death is almost slapstick, featuring dismembered bodies and dancing skeletons. This isn’t to say that the album lacks depth and sentimentality; FlyLo switches between soulful, melodic tunes and fast, upbeat tracks so that “You’re Dead!” never becomes predictable. Flying Lotus and, in particular, this album, are anything but boring.
Similar to his previous albums, Flying Lotus’s newest creation is to be taken as a whole, as each song blends into the next, creating a cohesive but cross-sectional exploration of the theme. While admittedly this approach sacrifices the independence of single tracks in the name of the whole, there is no denying the creativity and artistic vision needed to create these collections. The album can be split into movements, each with its own vibe.
The first four songs, including “Tesla” and “Cold Dead,” start quickly with fast-paced jazz riffs. “Tesla” features the legendary jazz artist Herbie Hancock on the piano playing at a rapid tempo that allows the audience to imagine that Flying Lotus holds a literal gun to his head, telling Hancock to play as fast as he can or else face living up to the promise of “You’re Dead!”
The next two songs are the most individual tracks and will probably stand the test of time, becoming favorites after multiple listens. “Never Catch Me” features hip-hop prodigy Kendrick Lamar, seemingly with the same gun to his head, running through his lines and barely giving the listener time to reflect on the lyrics. This song is the closest FlyLo comes to making a statement of theme — including lines such as “Analyze my demise, I say I’m super anxious / Recognize I deprive this fear and then embrace it” — yet the speed of the song makes it seem like he’s embarrassed by his own sentimentality. He then returns to his upbeat frenzy with “Dead Man’s Tetris.” Rife with hectic beats, comical gun-cocking sounds and even an appearance by Snoop Dogg, the song is a fun way for everyone to discuss death. The track also features a rap by FlyLo’s alter ego Captain Murphy, indicating he is more comfortable talking about death from behind the mask of the captain.
Listeners are allowed a breather after these two songs, and here the album becomes a more spiritual exploration of life after death. This haunting interlude of sorts features songs such as “Ready Err Not” and “Eyes Above,” which will remind fans of older Flying Lotus tracks. Following these are songs like “Coronus, the Terminator” (a sort of hymn for the apocalypse), that break entirely new ground for the artist).
The album meanders a bit in the third quarter with the bass interludes of long-time collaborator Thundercat. It finishes off strong, however, with “The Protest,” a track that brings “You’re Dead!” — and all those Ellison has lost — back to life for one last goodbye.
Flying Lotus has always been polarizing. The artist’s experimental nature and his work are sometimes simply too much for many to enjoy, but there is no denying his creative genius and his role as a genre-blending pioneer. Ironically, this album seems more alive than any of his other works. It just may be his masterpiece.