Review: Flying Lotus takes us through a surreal journey in “Flamagra.”

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Flying Lotus guides us through the surreal on his latest album

Flamagra fulfils its role as light throughout the mind of Stephen Ellison, a microcosm of his philosophy and inviting us along the ride through the topography of his roaming universe.

Stephen Ellison a.k.a Flying Lotus a.k.a FlyLo is a prodigy in world-building through his sounds and with a familial background like his, it felt destined. He’s the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, married to John Coltrane and is the grandson of songwriter Marylin McLeod. The influences of growing up encompassed by musical excellence seep through his music, almost like a love better to his upbringing, we see this when FlyLo gave us Cosmogramma, an embrace of neo-jazz that responded to the call that Coltrane’s avant-garde and tumultuous Ascension alarmed.

The sense of a journey is bookended in Flying Lotus’ discography. You’re Dead! takes us to the afterlife that thwarts morality and the corporeal; in Until the Quiet Comes proves itself as an introspective guide in the unspoken world of lucid dreaming. Flying Lotus uses the thematic motif of a fire blazing on top of a hill to embody a surreal journey through the mind of Stephen Ellison– who is thrown in the likes of J. Dilla, Madlib and Pharrell– with his albums displayed as exegesis against the assumption that producers aren’t just beatmakers but artists in their own field.

The album opens up with ‘Heroes,’ introducing the recurring motif of the sound of fire flickering in the wavering wind; an ominous voice takes the spotlight before a barrage of rhythmic drums and intense arpeggios built over by choral hums. Including ‘Heroes,’ the first stretch of tracks store themselves comfortably within the parameters of IDM, Jazz, and Electronic music and with a 27 track-list just stretching over an hour, the album uses its length to its fullest; it’s vast yet has no musical detritus contained in the album.

But with this conceptual album guiding us through the pathways of his mind, Flying Lotus is bound to take some detours. The first detour in Flamagra is the Anderson. Paak-assisted two-parter ‘More.’ The first half sojourns in Gospel inspirations as Anderson.Paak’s vocals transitions from a course tenor to syrupy and smooth within the second half, a neo-soul playground free for Anderson.Paak to switch up flows.

During the five year wait for Flamagra, he dropped the horror film ‘Kuso,’ composed a film soundtrack and continued to manage his record label Brainfeeder, supporting avant-garde artists wanting to push musical boundaries. As a result of gathering material over five years, Flamagra embodies the scattershot textures of a Jackson Pollock painting in tandem with the contained chaos of Michel-Jean Basquiat’s artworks. An excellent example that highlights this duality is ‘Yellow Belly,’ its presence is blessed by Tierra Whack’s imaginative cadences, her crooked flow and unpredictable lyrics about titties flying in your face. Flying Lotus’ glittery, wonky synths and syncopated drums; it’s the perfect stage for Tierra Whack’s chewing-gum mouthed style of rapping to fully shine.

‘Fire is Coming’ is the nexus and enters in the heat of the album, we don’t get David Lynch rapping or singing unfortunately but he still satisfies our expectations, being the spokesperson in this sprawling universe, repeating insidiously “Fire is coming” over unearthly production. This rides off the boom-bap ‘’Black Balloons Reprise’ allowing Denzel to disperse some of that classic, unhinged energy he’s exhibited plenty of times.

Flamagra is chaotic and a fair chunk of the album relies on the adrenaline of the guest features, listening to the whole album track-by-track feels like being in the passenger seat of a speeding wagon in this journey through the surreal. But the chaos is suspended by shards of quietness after guests deconstruct and curate their own microcosms within Flamagra.

This is when Flying Lotus truly shines as a genre-defying producer. ‘Andromeda’ is a neo-jazz spectacle while ‘Say Something’ fits comfortably in the canon of a Jon Brion composition and ‘FF4’ feels like a B-Side in a Nujabes beat complication. Just like he did with the spirit of Cosmogramma, He’s able to take sounds and make it his own without sounding jaded.

The loose-screw structure of Flamagra reveals itself a surreal, panache and roaming body of work with no destination in mind but it makes us admire the fun of taking us everywhere and anywhere. Flying Lotus admitted that he hates that his music has a “reputation for being too serious” and during the Kuso premiere, it was met with walkouts. Flying Lotus isn’t misunderstood but people often conflate prodigious talent with a sense of urgency, like you can never derail and make something askew.

So, when you feel like you’re wandering aimlessly in Flamagra, you feel betrayed because it’s not as cohesive as You’re Dead and you’re tempted to head back into the current climate where fans demand hit singles onto of hit singles for your Summer ’19. What differs Flamagra from the rest of his works is its lack of direction; it staggers, it speeds recklessly across hard shoulders, it takes detours but it’s an intricate and earnest album but only if you’re willing to envelop yourself in FlyLo’s world and let him be your driver.

Words by: Ethan Herlock

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