opinion byAUSTIN REED
Prior to its release, You’re Dead!, the fifth LP under Steven Ellison’s Flying Lotus moniker, seemed to generate the exact same reaction from critics: It spotlights death. It’s about death. It’s deathy. It reeks of death.
Which isn’t wrong. Not in the slightest. It is, after all, an album that holistically explores the concept of dying, both from the perspective of those experiencing it and of those witnessing it. And yes: It does comprise some fairly bleak undertones from start to finish. And perhaps most importantly, yes: This is a Flying Lotus album, which means the number of stones he leaves unturned is negligible and the amount of emotion coursing through the album’s veins is immeasurable. Steven Ellison doesn’t play well in the grey area, because he understands that to be grey is to compromise.
But sometimes, I think it’s easy to get so caught up in what Ellison is trying to say that we accidentally forget how he says it. For as remarkable and poignant as his message may be, his vocabulary is a weapon of an altogether more formidable grade. Musicianship goes a long way, but it’s awe-inspiring to watch someone like Ellison—a guy who both understands and revels in the type of melodic capriciousness that makes jazz music so appealing—work his magic in countless different iterations.
In a word, You’re Dead! is jarring. It’s not exactly linear, but it’s certainly not aimless. It has a destination, but the only guy aware of it just so happens to be the guy recklessly jerking the steering wheel back and forth.
In this situation, though, it’s somehow still an incredibly pleasant ride. You’re Dead! is a near-flawless examination of death as narrated by a virtuosic musician who has been exposed to a little too much of it.
Out the gate, it’s easy to assess just exactly how shifty and untethered You’re Dead! is going to be. Opening track “Theme,” assumes the identity of a low-flying symphonic prelude, sonically resembling a handful of instruments in warm-up mode. But by the 43-second mark, everything veers left in a heap of fractured-yet-sensible fusion jazz. The heap then dilutes once again, leading seamlessly into “Tesla,” one of the more degree-of-difficulty musical performances by bass guitar mastermind/frequent FlyLo collaborator Stephen Bruner and contemporary jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Hundreds of notes could be taken regarding Ellison the musician and composer, but, “He seems to waste time,” just isn’t one of them.
Earlier this year, I talked for a minute about “Never Catch Me,” one of the strongest tracks on You’re Dead! and one of the most shining moments of Kendrick Lamar’s career thus far. This bears repeating: “Never Catch Me,” is a monster of monolithic proportions. As a stand-alone single, it shines with unfettered brilliance, but as a part to the whole, “Never Catch Me,” operates as the album’s much-required ancillary, propelling You’re Dead! forward with the kind of wit and groove to be ominous and accessible at once. It’s probably the best track on the album.
But that’s a really harsh conclusion to jump to immediately, considering how fucking awesome some of these other tracks are. Ellison’s rap alter-ego Captain Murphy delivers sinister snarl alongside Snoop Dogg on “Dead Man’s Tetris,” a go-anywhere track that samples, like, every verbalized reference to death known to man. Snoop Dogg’s woozy drop on “Dead Man’s Tetris,” feels like the most natural verse the man’s recorded in the past eight years, making “Dead Man,” a tasty, worthy follow-up to “Never Catch Me.”
Purgatorial slow jams “Siren Song,” and “Turtles,” deliver grace under pressure with a little help from Projectors guitarist Angel Deradoorian’s airy, gossamer vocal samples. Saxophone wunderkind Kamasi Washington boasts a series of backbreaking guest spots on “Cold Dead,” and “Moment of Hesitation,” two of You’re Dead!’s more aggressively jazzy offerings.
Washington is electric, showcasing the type of saxophone prowess that fits perfectly into the Flying Lotus formula. There are trace instances on “Moment of Hesitation,” where I couldn’t believe what I was hearing was a saxophone. He’s remarkable.
But if we’re being real, the only track on You’re Dead! worthy of besting “Never Catch Me,” is “Coronus, The Terminator,” a sauntering, masterfully produced R&B wind-down featuring a sultry sample from Blank Blue vocalist Niki Randa. “Coronus,” is the type of slow grind that exists less as an exemplar for the album’s success and more as a load-bearing transitional element, detouring You’re Dead! out of its arresting, anxiety-ridden Yin into its softer, more down-tempo Yang. But it does so with such precision and grace—even the backward-spun introductory instrumental seems strangely critical—that its placement feels less like a reroute and more like an exercise in Ellison’s softer, more sensual propensities.
When viewed aerially, You’re Dead! is a lamentation. Examining the evolution of the album is as easy as listening to “Theme,” and beautifully constructed album closer “The Protest,” back to back, because it perfectly represents the journey Flying Lotus has taken throughout the grieving process. By drawing relationships to de facto mentor J Dilla to jazz pianist Alice Coltrane (Ellison’s aunt), Ellison illustrates just exactly how familiar he is with death, which is to say: He’s about as close to it as any alive person could be. You’re Dead!, in turn,works as a muscular-yet-ethereal dissertation on his sentiment: Perhaps by addressing it, deifying it, mocking it and rising above it, Ellison will be one step closer to accepting it.