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Album title: You're Dead! First song: "Theme."
Let's not mess around. With his propensity for weighty themes, Steven Ellison is going to address mortality with his fifth studio record. Comparisons quickly get out of hand - ask anyone who unwittingly writes songs only to have the spectre of a Bob Dylan cast upon them. So to preface, comparing Flying Lotus to Miles Davis is not technical musical ability or long-term importance. It's just narrative about harnessing "cool." Still, FlyLo has a lot of the Cool about him and it's not just the jazz. With Davis-like nonchalance, he glides from big name collaboration to big name collaboration, but refuses to let them break up the story he's telling. His soundscapes always pop out from behind the curtain. He even gets Kendrick Lamar to jump out with a "You're Dead" on the largely experimental record's most coherent track, "Never Catch Me."
Ellison can also flit back and forth between the obvious influences of his forebears - his great-aunt is Alice Coltrane - and hyperkinetic cartoon soundtracking as easy as Davis would play jazz and then surge into the extraterrestrial future. A direct Davis connection, pianist Herbie Hancock, is enlisted to set that old acid jazz mood for "You're Dead!" with just a few keyboard strokes - mood that resurfaces throughout the record in its deep-breath moments. In its next breath, however, guitarist Brendon Small can riff out into a diabolical and bloody flourish with FlyLo's whirling synth following after it. FlyLo is adept at harnessing the total art part of modern music promotion. With his ties to Adult Swim and cartoons, the leadup to "You're Dead!"'s release was a progression of blood and guts manga, a cheeky play on a theme that otherwise would depress. The Hancock mood and the cartoon garishness pair strangely well. With a depth and playfulness that pulls it back from overly pretentious, "You're Dead" shows it's just easy for Ellison to be cool.
Thanks to the Cool, Flying Lotus is able do what so many artists don't get the luxury to do - experiment. The album has few lyrics and it's almost like Ellison's swapped their role, turning them into the interludes for his snippet-length explosions of sound. Snoop Dogg makes an appearance - and who doesn't have a "Feat. Snoop Dogg" track on their record these days. FlyLo's maniacal rapping alter ego Captain Murphy makes a few cameos, including the chilling glee of "The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep" directly following frequent partner Thundercat's help with the "Descent Into Madness." Otherwise, most vocals are just another color with which he sketches his garish supernatural cartoon.
Mostly You're Dead! is a complex tangle of sound. But it's also as mordant as it's theme. It's almost like Flying Lotus has found and drank the Bitches Brew. Almost.