Album Review: Flying Lotus - Flamagra
It’s been five years since Flying Lotus last released an album, but it takes less than ten seconds to know you’re back in his headspace on sixth album Flamagra. No two of Stephen Ellison’s albums sound the same, but there’s a certain way that he hybridises jazz, funk, beats and a plethora of other styles that results in a tapestry that is unmistakably his own. This is both a boon and a drawback when coming to appraise Flamagra as an entirety.
In fact, the familiarity of FlyLo’s heady combinations is so pronounced, that in the first few tracks on Flamagra you might be forgiven for settling into a place of comfort. The opening trio oozes cool and boundless capability on the part of the players and of course the mastermind of it all; the celestial choirs are there, the inspired addition of chimes, the sense that everything is held together by sheer force of will – and yet they don’t necessarily challenge or surprise in the ways we’ve come to expect from Flying Lotus. It’s not until we reach the fourth track, ‘More’ featuring Anderson Paak, that we feel the heft of FlyLo’s inimitable style really kick into gear. For starters, ‘More’ doesn’t let you settle, with Flying Lotus setting out a smooth jazzy intro before pulling the rug out and switching the tack completely, with Paak nimbly skipping over the gap, hopping from his loquacious flow to a more chipped outpouring in the second segment. This is an occasion where the use of a collaborator on Flamagra works to the utmost, with the producer and his partner bouncing off each other in thrilling ways.
This isn’t necessarily the case with all of the features on Flamagra. The George Clinton feature ‘Burning Down The House’ sticks out like a sore thumb as an almost novelty throwaway, and coming only a quarter of the way into the album’s 67 minutes it’s an early speedbump to the momentum that has built up previously. Fortunately Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon – by now a seasoned feature vocalist – sets things back on track with a delightful turn on the pop production ‘Spontaneous’. Other big name features are all functional if not flamboyant; David Lynch’s spoken word centrepiece recalls Twin Peaks’ eeriness, Thundercat’s vocal turn is pleasantly ethereal, Toro Y Moi is almost unnoticeable, Solange’s glazed take nicely starts putting on the breaks towards the subdued end of the album.
In fact, starting with the aforementioned Anderson Paak feature, the most successful guest spots all come from rappers. Denzel Curry is perfectly attuned to the underlying pomposity in ‘Black Balloon Reprise’, his muscular bars matching the bruising beat. A team up between Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces feels like something we’ve been anticipating for half a decade, and ‘Actually Virtual’ proves the assumption that their styles would mesh nicely to be true, Ishmael Butler and Ellison seemingly pushing each other further into unreal sonic and psychic territories.
Then there is the case of ‘Yellow Belly’ featuring Tierra Whack, a song that is undoubtedly going to polarise listeners. Whack has already revealed herself to be one of the most characterful rappers in the game since breaking through last year, and Ellison produces a spindly beat on ‘Yellow Belly’ that fully allows her to express herself. With her voice constantly being warped by Ellison, she spits and splutters a masterfully cartoony turn, introducing herself as an innocently alluring muse, building up to the repeated conclusion “he’s got titties in his face!” At first this track seems to be a trainwreck, and may remain at that status for many, but repeated listens reveal just how well coiled and measured the bars and the beats are with one another, making it one of the crowning achievements of Flamagra.
Advance promos of Flying Lotus albums are sent as one long, unbroken file, emphasising Ellison’s insistence that his albums are to be listened to as one long piece. With so many high profile features dotted through Flamagra it can sometimes feel like the tracks without a feature vocalist are just interstitial timekillers, which has never been the case on a previous Flying Lotus album. That’s not true throughout; special mention must go to ‘Takashi’, the longest track on the album at almost 6 minutes, where FlyLo truly takes off into his own psychonautic soundscape, and it’s a thrill. Similarly, the longest stretch on the album without a feature, a five-track run just past the halfway point, is the other highpoint for the production. It’s a subdued and contemplative section, but not without instrumental and electronic thrills, from the far-out reaches of ‘Andromeda’, to the violin-led surprise 'Say Something', to the intimate and careful ‘Debbie Is Depressed’.
Overall, Flamagra is a mixed bag, which feels like a strange thing to say about Flying Lotus album, given how well his previous albums have been so uniform and of a piece. Unlike previous records in his catalogue, Flamagra does feel like it can be broken down into composite songs quite easily, and perhaps have even had some removed. That’s not to say that it is not a rewarding and compelling listen, which it certainly is for stretches, but there are also undoubtedly points at which your attention could wane or become derailed. For someone who makes music so precise and demanding, this means that Flying Lotus’ latest album is a harder one to digest, and ultimately isn’t quite as essential as his previous.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 29th May 2019