Flamagra by Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus returns with another pan-genre opus
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Flying Lotus lays serious claim to one of the greatest musicians of the 2010s, and you could reasonably argue that any of his albums are his magnum opus: the glitchy Los Angeles released before the new decade, the psychedelic journey through digitized space of Cosmogramma, You’re Dead! seemed to update 70s’ jazz fusion into the modern era. (I’m team Cosmogramma, personally.) On records like these, he showed that different genres could, not just live side-by-side with one another, but very easily be blended together; I think about the seemingly non-jokey scat-intro of “Do the Astral Plane” as the best example. Also, as grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, his glitchy beats have gotten jazzier over-time, from enlisting Ravi Coltrane (John Coltrane’s son) on Cosmogramma to the venerable Herbie Hancock on You’re Dead!. It’s all gotten to the point where he defies easy genre capsulation. And that’s without mentioning his other projects, from mentoring Thundercat (he helps produce much of Thundercat’s discography) to his Odd Future-influenced alter-ego Captain Murphy to loose beats here and there, including the opening track to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. As far as I’m concerned, Flying Lotus’ hyper-digital realizations of J Dilla soul and Madlib’s wonky beats was one of the best ideas anyone’s had this decade.

Flamagra is his newest album, which comes after an unprecedented 5-year wait, which has allowed him to more-carefully curate more beats than ever: it runs 31 tracks over 67 minutes, whereas his previous albums are all around 45 (with You’re Dead! even shorter than that). It might just be me, but a lot of the dialogue around Flamagra has just shown how much ‘listening culture’ has changed since 2010’s Cosmogramma: lots of people claiming it’s ‘too long’ and would work better if the shorter tracks were removed, never mind that the shorter tracks were how Flying Lotus made his name in the first place (ie. of Cosmogramma’s 17 songs, only 5 crossed the 3-minute mark). I can’t think of many other artists that make albums for the sake of making albums, and so few of them scream ‘listen to this from front-to-back’ the way Flamagra does. I know this leaked earlier, but how have you guys already parsed out 31 dense tracks of an artist whose previous works have all demanded replays?

I stress the word “track” because Flying Lotus’ albums have always been this way, where you can’t really tell where one track ends and the next begins (ie. Arca’s mixtape work), although Flying Lotus is kind enough to throw in a few more full-bodied (as opposed to more ‘fleshed out’ which suggests that the others aren’t laboured over) to help ground listeners. Increasingly, these songs tend to be the ones with features, culminating in Kendrick Lamar bringing You’re Dead! to climax on centerpiece “Never Catch Me.” My guess? This is where the reports that the second half is some dramatic drop-off are coming from: there’s less features (only two of them on the second half).

On Flamagra, joining the constant Thundercat at Flying Lotus’ side are the soulful voices of Anderson .Paak and Solange off the heels of their own releases. More surprisingly – as Flying Lotus has always worked with neo-soul artists – are Denzel Curry (the Florida rapper, whose previous TA13OO, I wrote about positively) and David Lynch (who inspired the ‘concept’ of the album when he talked about an “eternal flame sitting on a hill,” according to Flying Lotus). Shabazz Palaces appears on “Actually Virtual,” where Flying Lotus digitally exaggerates Ishmael Butler’s voice to contrast against the natural-sounding rattling drums, and given Shabazz Palaces’ own themes of space and Butler’s own love for jazz (he headed Digable Planets after all), having them collaborate is a match made in heaven. (Shabazz Palaces’ sophomore album, Lese Majesty, is actually a good comparison to Flamagra because a lot of listeners who apparently loved Black Up didn’t want to do the work to parse out a longer, more difficult album. Shame, because I continue to think Lese Majesty as one of the most interesting albums of 2014.)

It isn’t “More” or “Black Balloons Reprise” or “Land of Honey” that are the album’s main highlights even though that’s going to be how it’s reported. You could listen to these songs individually, but then you’d be missing out on the lead-in to “More” that is “Heroes in a Half Shell” with the indelible climbs of Thundercat’s unmistakable touches (Stephen Bruner has co-writing credits across the album) and the subtlest of backing vocals (likely from Thundercat himself, they have that friendly airiness to them) and subtlest of jazzy keyboard chords. (Despite running less than 80 seconds in length, “Heroes in a Half Shell” is just indispensable to me, and adds to my fire against anyone who thinks that these shorts songs are skippable.) And on the other side, there’s “Capillaries” which functions as an excellent come-down after .Paak’s naturally attention grabbing voice. I find it telling that the album’s longest song (therefore, the de facto centerpiece of the album even though it comes quite early) is one without any ‘proper’ features at all, “Takashi” which runs close to 6 minutes, an ‘updated’ 70s’ jazz fusion groove that features Thundercat’s brother on drums.

In that regard, highlights are everywhere if you give them time to reveal themselves: “Pilgrim Side Eye” switches from a maddeningly absurd groove – which features Herbie Hancock, incidentally – into a scene where the curtains rise and reveal a tranquil oasis, and manages this in 90 seconds; the stop-start motion of “All Spies” that sounds like it came from the soundtrack to a vintage video game; there’s the East Asian-sounding string line on “Say Something” atop the plucked strings that evoke dread (another highlight that clocks under 80 seconds). And plenty of great keyboard textures, like the one running through “Remind U” or Robert Glasper on the Solange-featured “Land of Honey” to the point that I wouldn’t even cut a mild track like the preceding “FF4” because it’s nice to hear the hand-offs between the piano and the plucked strings, plus the bass tethering it all together. And as with You’re Dead!, many songs ruminate on death, whether it’s the seemingly OutKast-inspired “Debbie is Depressed” (“Toilet Tisha,” anyone?), or Denzel Curry’s black balloons-as-depression metaphor. Two tracks here are tributes to the late Mac Miller, for whom Flying Lotus has produced beats, including “Find Your Own Way Home” (which is part of another theme about home) and “Thank U Malcolm.” (I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here, but these are the tracks that y’all want to cut?)  

(Denzel Curry continues to demonstrate a very hungry flow, and rhyming “ignited” with “knighted” – at the start of his verse – is pretty inventive, and I like how he sneaks in a few lines about the American president, “If the President fuck around and piss off ISIS / Bury me in blueberry bills, jewels and ices,” but the Nesquik line is awful, and emblematic of his problems of every now and then tossing in a frighteningly stupid line. Caught between being ‘lyrical trap rap’ and ‘meme rap,’ he just sort of bounces back and forth, alas.)

I feel like because Flying Lotus helped define the Los Angeles scene in the new decade with his album named after the city before increasing his scope on Cosmogramma and then proving that beats that seemed to be ‘unrappable’ could, in fact, be rapped over on Blu’s NoYork! and Captain Murphy’s Duality, there’s disappointment that Flamagra – after the long wait – doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s the same argument as Until the Quiet Comes, an album that’s grown on me the most, like an introverted version of Cosmogramma. I guess it doesn’t, but Flamagra does bring an hour of new material from someone that I’ve sorely missed – isn’t that enough?