One of the most inventive forces in modern music, Steven ‘Flying Lotus’ Ellison’s last album ‘You’re Dead!’ fused hip-hop, jazz and electronica to boldly explore the idea that there’s a strange beauty in death. Yet as interesting as that record was, it felt a little too sporadic — a collection of fascinating sounds that didn’t necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. But that was five years ago, and new album ‘Flamagra’, a spaced-out funk epic that’s much more soothing than its predecessor, proves Ellison has grown as a producer.
There’s something very J Dilla about tracks such as ‘Post Requisite’ and ‘Heroes in a Half Shell’, which both share the late producer’s ability to transport listeners into an alien world filled with bouncy hip-hop synths and calming transitions that kick in just as things get too intense. There’s a druggy swirl to this music, with the distorted first part of potent Anderson .Paak duet ‘More’ feeling like it’s filtering through a thick fog of weed smoke. The inventive beat switch, which brings in a bass guitar that cuts right through the beat, is a sleight-of-hand worthy of Frank Ocean and Travis Scott. It also makes you wish Flying Lotus had more of a hand in crafting .Paak’s last two underwhelming albums.
‘Takashi’ is dream-like, its psychedelic chimes creating a sense of pure escapism. But this calm is quickly replaced with urgency, thanks to the thrilling burst of electricity that is ‘All Spies’, an IDM track that sounds like the spaceship from Close Encounters (had the jingle-crafting martian on board been tripping on high-grade acid). Ellison is a master at shifting tone, and knows how to take listeners on an exhilarating journey that unites both calm and chaos.
He also knows how to inject versatility; this is an album that consistently combines Dr. Dre‘s ‘2001’-esque sun-drenched bass and bold chord progression (particularly on the excellent ‘FF4’) with the kind of inward-looking funk (exemplified on ‘Debbie Is Depressed’) you’d expect to find on a vintage Sly And The Family Stone record. At times, it can feel like Flying Lotus is just showing off, but there’s something endearing about him playing music with confidence that says: I’m at the top of my game. This record is an amalgamation of everything Flying Lotus has ever learned as a musician – dating back to being an intern at Stones Throw all those years ago, through to the raw edge he brought to Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. It’s all welded together to create a piece of art that’s bursting with ideas that impressively compliment one another.
High-profile guests include Solange, George Clinton, Thundercat, Toro y Moi, Shabazz Palaces and David Lynch, who spouts trippy dialogue on ‘Fire Is Coming’ (which could easily be taken from the truly surrealistic latest season of Twin Peaks). Yet it’s new rapper Tierra Whack, an artist already threatening to be this generation’s Andre 3000, who soars the highest. Her nutty verse on ‘Yellow Belly’ bottles the vibrant spirit Flying Lotus possesses as a producer, with lyrics such as “I’m so high everyone else looks up to me” feeling like a tribute to his genius. It’s also evocative of the album’s concept, which is apparently based around an eternal flame flickering at the top of a mountain.
‘Flamagra’ is at its best when Ellison embraces his jazz roots (his great aunt and uncle were jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane), as introspective jazzier tracks such as ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Say Something’ really do summon the atmospheric theatrics of being sat high up in the mountains at sunset, looking out onto a vast landscape and wandering what might be possible in life. Judging by this album, Flying Lotus can make just about anything happen.