On October 7th, Stephen Ellison, a.k.a Flying Lotus, released his fifth studio album entitled You’re Dead! The album marked a number of firsts. It was the first time Flying Lotus used live musicians to play a substantial amount of the music on an album. It was the first time critics talked about Flying Lotus as a composer as well as a producer. It was the first time he had made it into the top 20 on the U.S. charts. Strangely enough, these firsts aren’t what makes the album so special.
You’re Dead! starts off with the ringing chords of “Theme” and quickly spins out of control into a jazz-fusion frenzy of wide synth chords, fast syncopations, and hard grooves. The next few tracks stick with this vibe, bringing back memories of bands like Return to Forever, Weather Report, and Trio of Doom. This is one face of the record. Tracks like “Turkey Dog Coma,” “Moment of Hesitation” (featuring keyboard legend Herbie Hancock), and “Descent into Madness” put the sounds of the fusion era into a modern electronic music context.
The album is a cornucopia of beautifully produced sounds wrapped inside jazz fusion. These tracks combine the ethereal qualities of his great-aunt Alice Coltrane’s Spiritual Jazz and the solid grooves and song structure of George Duke, with rock and synth influences from bands like Weather Report. Every synthesizer, every studio effect, and every drum sound is beautiful, deep, and unique. In addition to the musical brilliance within the record, the album stands on its own as a lush soundscape. This makes You’re Dead! more accessible to the average listener than the typical 1970s fusion record. Several factors have caused the attributes of production and the auditory characteristics of music to become a larger part of what listeners digest. The popularity of the studio-centric music of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix), the expansion of ambient music beyond a niche genre, and the myriad of many otherwise homogenous alternative and punk bands distinguished by their sound rather than songwriting have all trained listeners to appreciate the sounds of a record as much as the musical aspects more traditionally judged.
The second face of You’re Dead! is much closer to Flying Lotus’s normal medium. Tracks like “Turtles” are unmistakably FlyLo, capturing an essence of hip-hop within a beautifully mixed and EQ’d soundscape, pulling from avant-garde, 8bit, World Music, and R&B influences. Songs like “Ready err Not” and “Eyes Above” have grooves harkening back to Flying Lotus’s 2006 release of 1983 with a revamped sonic palette. Other tracks such as “Siren Song” intensify some of the R&B themes first presented in Until the Quiet Comes (2012). “Coronus, the Terminator” does an excellent job of calling back these R&B themes, while maintaining the Alice Coltrane influences that make the album unique, by featuring a gospel-esque choir sunk deep into an avant-garde soundscape. The last track on You’re Dead! perfectly marries the fusion and electronic sides of the album. After spending a brief moment fading in and out of one of Deantoni Parks’ relatively sparse drum patterns, “The Protest” finds itself comfortable in a dense yet compact hip-hop groove, taking the album out.
What makes You’re Dead! special is how these two faces of jazz fusion and electronica are blended. The album occupies all of its genres–jazz and fusion on one side, electronic and hip-hop on the other–while engaging listeners of many types. Listeners coming from a jazz background (like myself) can latch onto harmony and improvisation and use that as a vehicle to explore what makes the electronic side special. For a lot of my jazz friends, this album was the catalyst for getting into electronic music and really exploring that genre. My father, who is an avid jazz fan but never liked electronic music beyond Eno and Boards of Canada, fell in love with You’re Dead! and actually sent me a link to his new favorite FKA Twigs song a few weeks ago.
The same goes the other way. Fans of electronic music can get a grip on the solid production on this album and use that as a vehicle to start exploring jazz and fusion through the myriad of styles presented on the album. A fantastic example of this is “Never Catch Me.” On the surface, it’s just a terrific rap track with Kendrick Lamar doing what he does best. Deeper down, however, so much is happening. Thundercat’s bassline is almost straight out of Jaco Pastorius (see the earlier Weather Report link) yet at the same time has a distinct Alphonso Johnson-esque punch, with an almost psychedelic envelope (probably due to the lack of a fretless bass and the use of effects like portamento in post). Everyone has something they can inherently appreciate on this song and thus explore something new with the rest of it. It is tracks like this that really give the album its importance.
Flying Lotus’s ability to bridge electronic listeners back to jazz is unique, since for the last fifty years, jazz has gone from being perceived as cool and seminal, to obscure, rarified, and even boring. Jazz musicians have survived in popular consciousness by being sidemen to pop artists (e.g., Sting’s 1980s band composed of all triple-A jazz artists), while inserting few actual jazz elements into the music. Recently, a few notable artists have been more successful in bringing jazz elements and influences to albums that found wider commercial success. Jazz pianist Robert Glasper’s Black Radio (2011) transforms pop and soul music covers into dynamic interactions within the ensemble, while including big-name guest artists such as Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Mos Def, and KING. Snarky Puppy, a large New York-based ensemble, has applied interactive and improvisational concepts to a variety of arrangement styles.
Flying Lotus, though, has a cooler presence. His trebly sound evokes the light of L.A. (he grew up in Canoga Park), he hangs out with Odd Future and Snoop Dogg. His listeners are generally younger. This is why Flylo has been more successful in turning people on to jazz. Less than a week after You’re Dead’s release, Twitter user @beflygelt tweeted, “Just wanna let you know that you got me to Miles Davis and Herbie and Jazz in general with your latest project! Thx for that <3”. Flying Lotus has masterfully bridged the gap between two beautiful genres, giving fans of both something to latch onto thus creating a launch pad to explore something they might not have heard otherwise. This is what makes the album so important: by presenting things we love in such a strong manner, it encourages us as listeners to venture outside our comfort zones, and find something new.