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You’re dead!

| Monday, October 6, 2014

web_you're deadSARA SHOEMAKE
No, not you. You’re not dead. And Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, aka masterful jazz-hip-hop-glitch producer, that guy, he’s not dead. And he didn’t kill anyone. And I’m not dead either. Honestly, take a look at yourself: you’re reading a review, by someone who’s not dead, about an album that claims to be about death – and that album was written by someone who is also not dead. “Where,” you ask out loud, “are the experts on this matter?” And then, of course, you answer the question for yourself with a small, humbled “Oh.” And then you die.

Or, at least, that’s the way Steven Ellison would have it. Rather than offering some grand explanation of death or painting a picture of a possible afterlife, Ellison toys with the fear and confusion that the idea of death stirs within us. That’s right, he toys with them; “You’re Dead!” is the most playful, joyful take on the old grim reaper since Monty Python’s crucifixion hit “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” He doesn’t even give death the respect of paying it much attention. Although “You’re Dead!” hosts a gamut of morbid song titles, only a handful of tracks actually boast lyrics dealing with the subject. The rest are so upbeat, energetic and lively that they would never be associated with death outside the context of their names.

If anything, the most fitting interpretation of “You’re Dead!” is that it frees the listener from the weight that our inevitable end bestows upon us, because musically, “You’re Dead!” is marvelously free of any constraint. A technical jazz masterpiece infused with gleeful beats, soaring vocal melodies and a few nimble raps, “You’re Dead!” transcends any and all limits that the terms “jazz” and “electronic” bestow upon their respective genres.

Not that this is new for Flying Lotus. The artist has always been churning out highly engaging experimental takes on the hip-hop beat, bringing in the masterful talents of instrumentalists like bassist Thundercat and vocalist Niki Randa. The combination of Ellison’s incredibly ornate and complex rhythms, chord progressions and the rich sonic qualities of the sources he pulls from, whether sampled or recorded, allow him to create music that is both highly listenable and endlessly intricate.

His records have always managed to maintain cohesion through a unifying approach to production style; “1983” is lounge-y and relaxed, “Los Angeles” is dark and swaggering, “Cosmogramma” is sprawling and relentlessly mutating, “Until the Quiet Comes” is refined and atmospheric. “You’re Dead!,” on the other hand, manages to seamlessly fuse essentially every one of these characteristics; Flying Lotus’ skill as a producer and the slew of musicians at his fingertips flood the album with ideas which, through incredible performance, seem to exceed their maximum potential.

Ellison’s ability to smooth any transition allows songs under two minutes to reconcile contradicting moods and styles. “Cold Dead” houses a ripping Hendrix-esque guitar set to manic drums that then shifts seamlessly into beautifully spiraling saxophone and piano melodies, and then he jumps back to the guitar and drums with no difficulty. “Dead Man’s Tetris” presents strutting rap verses (from Snoop Dogg and Ellison himself) alongside tangled cloud-rap beats and quirky vocal samples, but by the end of the track, Ellison has transmuted the glowering clutter into spacey bliss.

The record makes constant references to Ellison’s previous output – the creeping “Ready err Not” would have fit beautifully on “Until the Quiet Comes” — as well as a host of classic electronic artists, most notably “Geogaddi”-era Boards of Canada on “Coronus, the Terminator.” The amount of ideas on the record has it bursting at the seams, yet Ellison manages to tie it all together with an expertise that has become expected at this point in his career. Another brilliant entry in his discography, “You’re Dead!” continues to make a case for Flying Lotus as the musician with the fewest limits, and therefore the most potential to change music as we know it.

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