Tuesday, October 7, 2014 by Hunter Johns
“You’re Dead!” starts with the “BANG” of bells and the drone of a canned orchestra. For a while it seems like Flying Lotus, whose album this is, doesn’t know what this record will sound like. Will it be the relative minimalism of his last project, 2012’s “When the Quiet Comes,” or more the frenzied speed of the record before, 2010’s “Cosmogramma”? About thirty seconds into the song, with a crash, Flying Lotus decides this is going to be crazy, maybe even crazier than anything he’s ever done.
Flying Lotus (real name Steven Ellison) is a hip-hop producer from LA, known recently for his work with everyone from Cartoon Network to Radiohead. Actually, hip-hop might be too restrictive a genre to completely describe him; you wouldn’t be completely incorrect to call him an EDM producer or a jazz composer. On “You’re Dead!,” the jazz side takes precedent; the record is easily the most jazz-influenced of his projects to date. Jazz is not something he picked up out of the blue, though, as he is the grand-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane, which presumably makes jazz a little more accessible to him than most other people. (And are the bells at the beginning of the album a little reminiscent of the gong at the beginning of “A Love Supreme”?) Influences aside, “You’re Dead!” is undoubtedly a jazz album.
As the careful orchestration of the first thirty seconds gives way to the the off-kilter chords that define the album, “You’re Dead!” falls deeper and deeper into the theme of morbidity, which could have been expected from the title. Thundercat (of Suicidal Tendencies) lends his bass skills again after his work on “Cosmogramma”; on the first three songs, the mix of his hectic (but precise) bass lines and Flying Lotus’ death-jazz arrangement makes me feel like there is some heavy conflict in both their souls, as if a million tiny people are running around their stomachs, all playing the record and kicking at their stomach linings. On track two, Ellison brought in jazz great Herbie Hancock to help out, presumably with the arrangement. Instead of Flying Lotus’ usual unquantized MPC drum work, it sounds like someone was actually in the studio playing a real-life drum kit (imagine that). In my mind I imagine Flying Lotus bringing out his MPC to do the drums for “Tesla.”
It’s okay Steven, Herbie made the right call. The drums sounded amazing on “Tesla”, and Herbie even gave you back your MPC for “Never Catch Me”, which is arguably the best song on You’re Dead!. Having finally removed Herbie from the studio (psych, he’s back for track fourteen, “Moment of Hesitation”), Flying Lotus brought the one and only Kendrick Lamar in to give a verse on “Never Catch Me.” To my ears, the combination works really, really well. Lamar is one of the few guys out there who can both bring his stardom and technique to a song, and yet still manage to let Flying Lotus’ production be the true star of the show. That goes double for Ellison, who can produce on such a high level that the beat neither overpowers Lamar nor relegates itself to underling status.
The next track on “You’re Dead!,” “Dead Man’s Tetris,” makes a perfect juxtaposition with the previous track. After Captain Murphy (Ellison’s MC alter-ego) gives a pseudo-verse about death, Snoop Dogg jumps on the track to give his own verse. Being two West-Coast rappers, the comparison between Snoop and Kendrick is an easy one to frame. Snoop is the old-guard, a veteran with a career that is for all intents and purposes over. Kendrick, on the other hand, is only 27 and fresh off the genre shattering “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” And on this track, “Dead Man’s Tetris”, Snoop makes the mistake that Lamar so nimbly avoided on “Never Catch Me”: Snoop makes the song about himself, not Flying Lotus. Snoop’s persona is just too big, or too inflexible, to allow itself to be crammed in the same song as FlyIng Lotus’. Snoop sounds fine though; the verse was a perfectly Snoop verse, and it was interesting to hear him outside the realm of G-Funk. But gone are the days when Snoop could be wedged in a track with a talented producer like Dr. Dre.
The rest of the album is not as star-studded as the first half, but no less enjoyable. The stereo call and response on “Siren’s Song (ft. Angel Deradoorian)” was particularly enjoyable; so was “Descent Into Madness (ft. Thundercat)” which was exactly that, and the next song, “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep (ft. Captain Murphy)” is equally dark and euphoric. On the whole, the You’re Dead was a worthy follow-up to “Cosmogramma”; it makes a strong case for everyone involved. But most of all, “You’re Dead” proves once again that Flying Lotus knows what he’s doing, and that he can do it very well.