Flying Lotus Does Not Always Soar on 'Flamagra'
Flying Lotus' fifth album Flamagra contains plenty of strong material but ultimately lacks a unifying coherence.
24 May 2019
The new album from Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) offers a plethora of material for your listening consideration. At 27 tracks and over an hour long, the listener has the opportunity to dig into a wealth of genres and moods, with a host of guest appearances from Anderson Paak, George Clinton, Little Dragon, Tierra Whack, Denzel Curry, David Lynch, Shabazz Palaces, Thundercat, Toro y Moi, and Solange, among others. There is a lot to enjoy here, and there are plenty of musical avenues to explore, but the experience is ultimately a rather mixed and perplexing blessing, for a number of reasons we will get to presently.
The album begins with the rumble and deep spoken word announcement of "Heroes", as if we are in an underwater railway station and thereafter launches into a relatively old school jazzy drum and bass groove that somewhat ironically recalls the British band 4Hero and their late '90s Talking Loud incarnation, particularly Two Pages (1998). Whether or not this is deliberate or accidental is hard to tell, but it's a pretty auspicious and upbeat beginning that seems to reference a golden age of the fusion of jazz, funk, and hip-hop while impelling us forward into the future, as Ellison is often so keen to do and so very adept at pulling off.
We transition easily from there into the light jazz groove of "Post Requisite" and the slightly more hectic "Heroes in a Half Shell", before we encounter the first of many guest appearances. This time it's in the form of Anderson Paak, whose smooth rasp seems to fit in well here, and his "More" represents a highlight, pulling together some of the disparate generic strands and threads of the album with an anthemic award tour of sorts. This is a beautiful moment on the album as it seems to draw all the light to itself, somewhat as Paak himself is wont to do with his quite irresistible charm.
This early passage of the album continues rather effortlessly as we segue into the P-Funk inflected instrumental of "Capillaries" as a preview for the arrival of George Clinton himself on "Burning Down the House." That Clinton's crusty funk can sit so easily alongside the jazzy pop of Little Dragon's "Spontaneous" and Paak's sweet sandpaper voice is a testament to Ellison's ability to synthesize any number of different sounds, artists, and genres in a smoothly sequenced flow. And indeed the first half, perhaps more, of this album offers a fascinating and rewarding journey through the gamut of contemporary (and sometimes less contemporary) music, from jazz to hip-hop to pop to funk in a transhistorical and thoroughly eclectic swirl.
So while there does not appear to be a unifying theme to these songs, and while there is certainly no generic coherent or common denominator, it's possible to see the way that Ellison is simultaneously and constantly raveling and unraveling all of these disparate components. The crosswalks between jazz, funk, and hip-hop seem to be in constant negotiation here, and so perhaps the unifying concept, if there is one, might be the relationships between these genres and how they get worked out.
After all, Ellison himself is behind the Brainfeeder label, a loose collective that contains, accommodates and enables the likes of Kamasi Washington, Thundercat's Stephen Lee Bruner (whose "The Climb" here is a delightful exercise in jazz fusion), and George Clinton, among others. Furthermore, and as is by now somewhat common knowledge, Ellison's DNA can be traced back into the most venerable recesses of music both popular and more arcane, given that his grandmother was Marilyn Mcleod (who wrote "Love Hangover), and his great aunt was McLeod's sister Alice Coltrane, who later became Turiyasangitananda. This little genealogical synopsis alone goes a long way to explaining the musical magpie Ellison would become, and that avaricious curiosity is on full display here, as it has been for his entire career.
The album's strongest sequence begins with the propulsive jazz-funk of "Takashi", which is a melodic and rhythmic joy. The sequence of tracks that follows goes from the P-Funk-inflected "Pilgrim Side Eye" to the spooky combination of the ethereal "All Spies" and Tierra Whack's charmingly outlandish and paranoid "Yellow Belly". That is followed up swiftly by the startling clarity of Denzel Curry's "Black Balloons Reprise". It all adds up to represent a purple passage that pulls together a number of the multiple errant threads the album has been pulling on rather restlessly to this point. This would seem to be a really strong foundation on which to propel the album forward to a powerful conclusion that would leave an enduring impression.
However, after Curry's appearance, the remaining highlights are few and far between, although they do include the rickety rattle of the excellent "Actually Virtual" from Shabazz Palaces and the very pretty sequence from Thundercat's "Jump", to "Pygmy" and Toro y Moi's quite charming "9 Carrots". But at around the 40-minute mark, the album's lack of focus seems to tip the whole project over into something of a sprawl, and this raises some critical questions. These questions might best be articulated in a number of paradoxes.
First, there is almost nothing here that is objectively difficult to listen to. Most of the material goes down rather easily, and indeed some of it seems more than accessible. The paradox that confronts us here (and elsewhere), though, is that this is a largely frictionless experience. It feels as if the album doesn't ever get quite weird enough somehow, and there are frequent rather non-descript jazzy interludes that don't so much provide connective tissue as they merely put us into a slightly vapid holding pattern ("Remind U", "Debbie Is Depressed", "FF4", and passim).
When the album does get weird, though, the weirdness can seem forced and gratuitous, notably on the somewhat pointless David Lynch appearance, "Fire Is Coming", and the quasi-classical movie soundtrack instrumental "Say Something", whose inclusion seems to strain at any logical coherence. And this seems to get at another paradox, which is that while there is an admirable eclecticism that seems to suggest a hungry curiosity and a stubborn refusal to fit into a generic classification, the result is a somewhat diffuse and sprawling blandness that leaves one wondering what to make of such an apparent lack of focus. It's as if the entire shaggy project needed a haircut somehow.
It is indeed difficult to get a handle on an album that contains 27 tracks, has no arc or throughline or thematic unifier, and only a handful of real standout tracks, but that shouldn't necessarily make such a project unviable or ultimately doomed to failure. It just seems that this particular attempt doesn't finally come off. There is a really solid 40-minute mixtape in here, waiting to be sculpted from these base tracks, but what we have feels like it needs an editor (it's rather hard to see that Solange's appearance, for example, justifies the excitement of her billing, since the track seems to meander into a cul-de-sac from which it never emerges).
Flamagra might indeed be an object lesson in giving music a chance and not dismissing it out of hand if you are not immediately hooked, and to be sure significant chunks of the album start to make a certain amount of sense over time, even if the whole thing never fully coheres. It's also quite possible that many different people will find many different points of personal inflection here – the pivotal axis of the album, for example, seems to revolve around a combination of a progressive kind of jazz combined with several significant nods to the legacy of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.
Furthermore, it's an objectively good thing that Ellison is challenging us to adjust both our listening mode and our attention span, all while most single tracks allow for our limited ability to sit with something for too long. But when the album ends, with some guttural knockings and rumblings and fades to silence on "Hot Oct.", you cannot help but wonder what it was all about. And honestly, that remains unclear, for all that there are genuine highlights and very admirable experiments and excursions here.
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