Flying Lotus: Flamagra review – A sprawling masterwork of genius
We’ve never been sure that Flying Lotus is of this earth, that his body is of blood and water, that his mind exclusively resides in this dimension. Granted, the DJ and producer’s California driving licence reads “Steven Ellison, born 1983” – the year that inspired the title of his first album. But his superhuman ability to intricately weave elements of jazz, electronica and hip-hop into arrangements that shuffle and spark faster than the human brain can process information has always suggested a being from another world.
Picture FlyLo as a quantum leaper – his musical instruments sourced from the outer cosmos, the energy of Afrofuturist demigod Sun Ra looming over his shoulders, West Coast rap beats ringing through his space helmet, his great-aunt Alice Coltrane acting as an earthly spirit guide.
A blistering career has seen Ellison bless us one of the greatest long-form expositions of his hometown with the album Los Angeles (2008). He’s journeyed to the far end of the galaxy on Cosmogramma (2010), imagined himself astral projecting on Until the Quiet Comes (2012), and investigated mortality itself on You’re Dead! (2014).
The question that looms over Flamagra, the first Flying Lotus record in five years, is: where do you go when you’ve broken the limits of human transience? The answer: a sprawling 27-track masterwork that pulls in multiple threads from FlyLo’s unimpeachable discography while forming his most accessible collection to date.
Many of the identifying characteristics of classic FlyLo production are here: shuffling percussion patterns, glitchy electronics, dreamy piano chords, squelchy basslines, astral squiggles and a free-jazz aesthetic. Yet more than ever, Flamagra sees Ellison revelling in classic rap, R&B and funk. He invites a broader set of collaborators into his bizarre world, naturally pulling him into more traditional musical outlines.
The album can feel a little less forward-thinking than some of his previous work. Nothing will break your brain like the futuristic disco stomp of Do the Astral Plane or make you fear the space-time continuum is coming apart like the first time you pressed play on Brainfeeder. But what we do have is 67 minutes of highly melodic, expertly arranged, texturally thumping music that sounds distinctly of its creator.
Ellison is right in the pocket on songs such as the 16-bit, midnight-blue jazz of Heroes in a Half Shell, and the peppy electro-R&B wonderland Takashi. We wanted a new Flying Lotus album and we damn well got one.
Most striking of the diverse squad of artists recruited is master surrealist David Lynch. The story goes that Ellison was struggling to nail down a concept for the album, vaguely working on an idea based on the imagery of fire or “an eternal flame sitting on a hill”. Then, at a party, he heard Lynch tell the tale of a young boy named Tommy, his mother and a strange phone call.
As the film-maker teased out this very Lynchian tale (“Just then a man appeared, running frantically in the street, the man yelling, ‘Fire is coming, fire is coming, fire is coming!’ ”), the album came to life in Ellison’s mind. So much so that he tapped Lynch to retell the saga in the recording booth.
These two daring masters of their craft combine to give us the spoken-word track Fire Is Coming, a phantasmagorical showpiece. Lynch’s narration could have come from an old black-and-white science-fiction TV show, his gloriously weathered voice cracking like classic Americana.
No matter who the collaborator, FlyLo comfortably bring them into his dimension. After a couple of boring albums, Anderson Paak sounds rejuvenated on More, transforming into that rapping soulman we know and love over the producer’s snappy drums and glimmering keys.
The original sci-fi funkateer, George Clinton, brings his heavy synths with him on Burning Down the House. Solange Knowles’s soft coos echo through the moving soul of Land and Honey.
On The Climb, Thundercat’s gentle falsetto, fat bass and strong pop-soul sensibilities prove, as they have in the past, to be a prominent component in FlyLo’s arsenal.
Then there’s a spectacular taste pick in the form of Denzel Curry. Over the snappy boom-bap of Black Balloons, the rising Florida rapper is a ball of youthful energy and lyrical ingenuity. It takes guts to simultaneously take a shot at Donald Trump and declare your love of jewels by rhyming “Isis” with “ices”.
The album’s heart can be found in two mournful tributes to the sadly departed Mac Miller: the futuristic funeral hymn Find Your Own Way Home and reverential spiritual jazz piece Thank You Malcolm. For all his idiosyncrasies, FlyLo is an earthly genius.