It’s so wonderfully fitting that Herbie Hancock has offered his talents on You’re Dead! Not only does his name come to mind shortly after Miles Davis and The Mahavishnu Orchestra when thinking of jazz-fusion, but he’s always been drawn to the style at its most forward-thinking. In spite of his familial associations with the illustrious Coltranes, Flying Lotus isn’t a name I’d have thought I’d be speaking of in a jazz context; even though past albums like his 2010 masterwork Cosmogramma were pretty open about their jazz influences, the concept of an electronic artist putting such an emphasis on a genre that is entirely dependent on organic performance and feeling seems outlandish, at least at first. Then again, we’re now living in 2015, the great time of the future, and with a few years left in us before we’re swept away by the ravages of nuclear hellfire, these kinds of surface-level paradoxes can and should be exploited in art.
You’re Dead! is a vivisection of blended styles, not only bringing in jazz, but hip-hop and the expected glitchy IDM as well. Far more importantly, the result of this is fascinating, not simply for the novelty of the style (I know Nu Jazz is founded on the basis of this electro-jazz fusion, but in the case of Flying Lotus it sounds seamless) but the trademark energy and flow that Flying Lotus brings to his albums. In Flying Lotus tradition, the songs are less properly structured compositions in and of themselves, and should be seen moreso as meticulously sketched pieces of a larger whole. Without dwelling too long on a particular mood or idea, Flying Lotus keeps the pacing as brisk as ever, and as a result, the already-brief thirty-eight minutes seem to fly by even faster than they should.
I’ve noticed a trend in Flying Lotus albums in that they’ll unfold as a journey from point A to point B. I remember being struck by the subtle shift towards the weird and the percussive over the course of Cosmogramma. The shift is far more pronounced on You’re Dead! For the first few tracks (which blend together as if there was nothing but an arbitrary track listing to separate them), Flying Lotus unleashes the most perfect fusion of jazz with any other genre (including rock) I’ve ever heard. The instrumentation (including a very John McLaughlin-esque electric riff at the beginning of ‘Cold Dead’) would have probably passed for some excellent jazz-fusion even without Flying Lotus’ deft glitches and electronic tweaks. Following the album’s jazz-laden overture, You’re Dead! dips into hip-hop; Kendrick Lamar (who has demonstrated some brilliance of his own in 2012 with good kid, m.A.A.d city) offers an excellent guest spot with ‘Never Catch Me’; a smooth piano line and confident groove sound leisurely in contrast with Lamar’s quick-spouted rhymes and rhythms. While Hancock easily brings the most star-power to Flying Lotus’ latest venture, it’s possibly Lamar’s contribution that lingers in my head the most.
On the other hand, there’s no promise that a project with Snoop Dogg as a guest is going to be any good. His distinctive delivery and izzle-izzle bastardization of the English lang-uizzle has an unfailing personality to it, but judging from his history (he did something with Nicki Minaj recently, for crying out loud) I doubt artistic sturdiness is in mind when he’s picking out his creative projects. Then again, he did a stint with Gorillaz on Plastic Beach, and I thought that album was great; he’s far from a wordsmith (or even talented) and ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’ doesn’t offer any testament to the contrary. At the same time, Flying Lotus’ beat here is one of the most infectious things he’s ever done, and Snoop Dogg capitalizes on it. Later on, as the album gravitates towards a more chilled atmosphere characteristic of IDM, Thundercat offers a vocal spot on the particularly strong ‘Descent into Madness’, which sounds too close to Mr. Bungle or one of Mike Patton‘s other projects not to warrant the comparison. Strangely enough, the biggest gripe I have here is for the ‘guest’ contributions of Captain Murphy—the secret alter-ego of Steven Ellison himself. Even though so much of the album is fantastic, I don’t think I can remember another track in 2014 that has proved so unbearable as ‘The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep’; it’s as if Ellison/FlyLo/Captain Murphy was trying to explore how irritating and unpleasant the human voice could become on the recorded medium. It’s a major shame—considering You’re Dead! is an otherwise incredible piece of work, the fact that there’s always a track waiting for me towards the end that compels me to reach for the ‘skip’ button casts a dark shade on the experience. I still cannot entirely grasp why it is here, but then again, the Israeli avant-metallers Omb released a similarly fluid and otherwise excellent album Swinesong last year that was damaged by an exercise in verbal atrocity towards the end. I suppose even artists let their imp of the perverse get to them at the best of times. Considering how strong the rest of the album is however, it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise impressive experience.
Even though I can still remember my first refreshing experience of Cosmogramma fondly, I may have not been so excited about You’re Dead! if I hadn’t seen the sort of divisiveness it was creating amongst other listeners and fans of Flying Lotus. There’s no doubt that fans of electronic music and fans of jazz need not necessarily agree on the same merits of music—I’ve met a few earnest lovers of music that loved one and despised the other—but at the very least, they professed that they couldn’t understand the appeal behind something without a human touch or sense of structure respectively (yes, I’ve heard both arguments several times). I’d argue that they’re both wrong; electronic composers can fuel their music with a lot of relatably human passion given the right inspiration, and while the structure and handling of melody in jazz may be alienating to new listeners, it’s definitely there. To detractors of electronic or jazz music, I’d recommend they check out You’re Dead!; Flying Lotus has fused the two without sacrificing the character of either style.
That’s another way of saying it is fantastic.
03) Cold Dead
04) Fkn Dead
05) Never Catch Me
06) Dead Man’s Tetris
07) Turkey Dog Coma
09) Coronus, the Terminator
10) Siren Song
12) Ready Err Not
13) Eyes Above
14) Moment of Hesitation
15) Descent into Madness
16) The Boys Who died in Their Sleep
17) Obligatory Cadence
18) Your Potential//The Beyond
19) The Protest