Flying Lotus’ Darkly Psychedelic Funk Opus ‘Flamagra’

In the decade or so since Stephen Ellison released his breakout Los Angeles LP, he’s established himself as hip-hop’s headiest auteur, a maximalist Brian Eno for the medical marijuana age whose meteor-storm productions triangulate funk, electronica, and assorted jazz fusions, and are often attached to experimental film projects and a live show that updates the psychedelic eye candy of golden-age Pink Floyd. Flying Lotus beats have rootstock in West Coast strains (Madlib, the Stones Throw Records school, the Dr. Dre – Snoop Dogg G-funk axis). The Midwest is in there, too, with echoes of Detroit innovators like J Dilla and Carl Craig. Like many of his forebears, you get the sense Ellison has studied P-Funk LPs like Talmudic scholars do Torah scrolls.

One might think of Flamagra as Ellison’s Apocalypse Now, or The Wall — it shows an artist at the height of their power, able to realize their most over-the-top imaginings, delivering a sprawling near-masterpiece teetering at the brink of overkill. The cast is full on: jazz fusion all-star Herbie Hancock and P-Funk mastermind George Clinton represent for the old school; Solange, Tierra Whack, Anderson Paak, and Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler provide varying shades of the new. “Heroes” opens the set portentously, with a pitched-down spiritual-jazz lead vocal, choirs that billow through the mix like airborne veils, and an ambient backdrop that could be the sound of a bonfire, a chorus of bubbling bongs, or a combination thereof.

There are a lot of ideas here, and a lot of notes — a plus or a minus depending on your mindset — distributed over 27 tracks, nearly half of which clock in under two minutes. Some of these short sketches provide the most delicious moments: The squishy synth-funk of “Pilgrim Side Eye,” with Hancock; “Andromeda,” a collaboration with longtime Ellison associate Thundercat; and the uplifting “Thank You Malcolm,” a tribute to Ellison’s friend Mac Miller (as is the elegiac “Find Your Own Way Home”).

Elsewhere, “Takashi” is busily high-stepping robot funk, part Bootsy, part Prince, part Mahavishnu Orchestra. No relation to the Talking Heads song, “Burning Down The House” features a George Clinton word salad with chattering machine-elf voices swirling around him. Themes of fire and loss are woven throughout the set, unsurprisingly perhaps from a California artist at the end of the ‘10s, inspired in part by a chance encounter with filmmaker/musician David Lynch, who turns up as narrator on the film noir-ish “Fire Is Coming.” Solange sings of a fall from grace on the lush “Land of Honey.” Things also get giddy: the album’s most memorable one-toke-over-the-line moment occurs on “Yellow Belly,” when, after some impressively free-associative freestyle from Tierra Whack, it veers into a chant of “titties in his face!”

But for an artist who treats sound as an infinite playground, Ellison’s default mode is dark. One song is simply titled “Debbie Is Depressed.” And on “Black Balloons Reprise,” young MC Denzel Curry spits rhymes about a coming apocalypse, when we will apparently see the “real exposed.” He rhymes it with a line that could be Ellison’s maxim: “’Til then, I kick that funky shit until my casket closed.”

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