Let’s say there were such a thing as an Uncommercial Album Ideas Generator. Obviously, the machine’s first output would be “Rock Opera About Adrian Peterson.” But the second idea would probably be “Partly Jazz Fusion, Partly Hip-Hop Fantasia That Envisions Death As An Everlasting Psychedelic Trip.” Somehow, Steven Ellison — the creatively restless producer, musician, and rapper better known as Flying Lotus — has made that record, and he’s made no attempt to hide that he’s made that record. In fact, Ellison has doubled down on the concept by calling his fifth LP, due out October 7, You’re Dead!1
Ellison also turns 31 on that day.
“Part of saying that so boldly is it really sets the tone for what you hear,” the L.A. native explained when reached last week at his New York City hotel room, where he was decamped in the midst of a promotional tour. “When you press play, you’ll probably smile. It’s just like, ‘BOOM!’ Instantly, you’re there in the moment. That was really what spawned the whole album, that initial feeling. I just went from there, and I really wanted to take people on this ride.”
Flying Lotus fans have learned to expect the unexpected from the mercurial Ellison, who in spite of his festival-headliner status has made his name making dense, complex, and introspective records. Los Angeles (2008) and Cosmogramma (2010) are widely acknowledged to be benchmarks of modern electronic music, seamlessly integrating scattershot beats with hip-hop grit and jazzy spaciness, like the natural product of J. Dilla, Aphex Twin, and Kid A. For You’re Dead!, Ellison initially set out to make a straight-up jazz fusion LP, enlisting one of the original architects of the form, Herbie Hancock, to contribute his signature psych-funk keyboard licks.2
Actually, Hancock initially pursued collaboration with Ellison, inviting him to join his band. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” Ellison said.
Brainstorming with frequent musical partner Thundercat, the brilliant bassist whose 2013 LP Apocalypse was one of last year’s best albums, Ellison took inspiration from interstellar fusion masterworks like George Duke’s The Aura Will Prevail along with jazz-accented prog-rock artists like the Soft Machine and even the corpse-obsessed maelstrom of prime-era Slayer. Ellison has fusion in his blood — his great aunt was the late pianist Alice Coltrane, though he says the jazz legend was a greater influence on Cosmogramma. (The title comes from a misheard phrase — “cosmic drama” — from one of Coltrane’s recorded spiritual lectures.) But mostly it was the intensity of those records that attracted Ellison. He wanted it in his own music.
Death seemed like appropriately intense subject matter for the music; it also resonated with Ellison given the loss of his parents, some family members, and associates like DJ Rashad and Austin Peralta. Over time, You’re Dead! drifted back toward hip-hop after Ellison convinced superstar MCs Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg to get onboard. But the album still represents a significant departure from Ellison’s previous work — perhaps too significant of a departure, he admitted.
“There’s been plenty of times where I’ve thought to myself, Well, maybe I should just try and do something that’s really accessible to people, just to show them that I’m not a weirdo, you know? But at the same time, I feel like I have to do these kinds of records, because no one else is going to do them,” he said. “How the fuck am I going to get away with calling an album You’re Dead!? Everyone is just going to think I’ve completely lost it now. Even in the last minute I was like, ‘Man, does this really need to be called this? Should I think of something else close to it?’ But I really do feel like it cheapens the statement if I don’t call it that.”
You’re Dead! ranks among 2014’s most adventurous albums, veering from atonal guitar freak-outs powered by punishing drum fills to existential crunk to bare-bones gospel chants. It’s also among the most dazzling: The connective thread on You’re Dead! is Ellison’s fertile imagination, which has recontextualized the afterlife as a playground for free-form expression. Ellison says he regards death as life’s greatest journey, and he’s conveyed that idea musically by roaming further and wider than ever before into the ether of fractured beats and tumultuous soundscapes.
“You get through this record, and by the end of it, the message becomes, ‘We will live on forever.’ There’s a success in knowing that our influence on Earth, the love that we leave behind, the memories we have of us are definitely here, they definitely live on. I wanted to leave it on that kind of note, because I don’t just think it’s over when you’re dead. I feel like it’s the beginning of a different experience.
“I don’t think that death is morbid,” he added. “I think that it’s the one thing that we all have common, really, that one day we’re not going to be here anymore. It’s a funny thing to think about, but we think about it all the time. It’s actually really normal for people to think about it. People pass away all the time. It puts our lives into perspective. When it comes to me, it always seems to remind me of how important our connections are to people, and how important it is to show the people we care about that we really care about them. I don’t know. For whatever reason, I feel so connected to those themes lately in my life.”
As he has on previous records, Ellison worked with musicians during the making of You’re Dead!, but strictly on a one-to-one basis, allowing him to construct the album as if he were drawing from a pile of homemade samples. “It was a lot of fun have Herbie Hancock around and sing ideas to him, and watch him come to life,” he said. “What’s cool about it is it still feels like it’s the beat-making scenario that I’m familiar with, where it’s like me and a record or me and samples. Having that one person at a time makes it feel like they’re another instrument.”
The most talked-about instrument on You’re Dead! thus far has been Lamar, star of the scintillating single “Never Catch Me,” which sounds like Aquemini-era Outkast transported back to Miles Davis’s Live Evil period. Lamar is apparently an enthusiastic subscriber of Ellison’s unreleased beats: In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Ellison claimed that Lamar took “12 or 13 of my tracks” for possible consideration on a future album, inadvertently delaying the release of Ellison’s own album as Captain Murphy, his MC moniker. Ellison was still in the dark about Lamar’s intentions when I inquired.
“He’s got a whole bunch of stuff recorded that I don’t know if it’s ever going to come out,” Ellison said. “He sits on tons and tons of music, and then he puts out a few things. So who knows at this point?”
While You’re Dead! has stars, it is not a star project. Everyone is absorbed into the whole, which unfolds as a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end. Here, again, is another Uncommercial Album Idea — an LP you have to play from front to back for it to make sense. But Ellison is unapologetic about his inconvenient ambitions.
“I give enough shit away that’s like, OK, these are just tracks to play out, and these are things to put on SoundCloud. There’s no story here,” he said. “I feel like I’m fighting a dying fight here. But I still have to do my part. I still have to do this, because no one else is going to do it. I just feel a calling to stand up for an experience.”