Flying Lotus Presents an Ambitious Set of Funky Vignettes on ‘Flamagra’

Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, is an artist constantly accredited with having music in his blood, with no shortage of talk about his relation to Alice Coltrane. This fixation would be silly if it didn’t prove itself so relevant in Ellison’s music. From his earliest work to his latest album, “Flamagra,” he has explored styles that are often at the cutting edge, but simultaneously conserve the richness largely lost from bygone styles. For his latest effort, a staggering 26-track recording, he enlists an impressive number of illustrious guests, and shuttles elegantly between styles, while still demonstrating a distinctive aesthetic, and fleshing out a cohesive set of songs with a thoroughly realized vision.

The album begins with the lines “We are now joined together again / In the space that you’ve created,” immediately setting the mystical, vaguely spiritual, and decidedly upbeat mood that persists throughout the record. As soon as a beat drops, Ellison puts his signature stamp on the music, with mellow trip-hop, future-jazz stylings. There’s less restlessness this time around, with the frenetic glitches taking the back burner, and more focus on establishing a groove. Always a master of detail, Ellison packs in plenty to keep it interesting, but the sonic surprises and fits are more subtle. “Post Requisite” finds him slickly settling into a sound he has honed over the years, and recalls the work of glitch-hop mastermind Prefuse 73. “Heroes In a Half Shell” delves into camp sci-fi, video game lounge fare. For this release, Ellison has opted for short, condensed tracks that communicate a quirky stream of consciousness, and give the project a distinct feel from past efforts.

The new songs feature a colorful cast of characters, adeptly placed in settings that fit their proclivities and bring out their voices. The first to appear is Anderson .Paak on “More,” a cut whose breakbeats and ‘70s-informed soul signifiers strike as custom tailored for him. The legendary George Clinton shows up on “Burning Down the House,” which effectively channels the classic sound of Parliament Funkadelic into a more edgy, off-kilter variation. Little Dragon, on the other hand, are cast in a notably different light on “Spontaneous,” which trades the band’s typical sharp dance stylings for lush atmospherics and unhinged funk.

“Takashi” is the shining centerpiece of the album, a shapeshifting, buoyant riot of pristine jazz-funk and hard-hitting beats, encapsulating all FlyLo’s idiosyncratic brilliance and whimsy, at moments echoing the stylings of Squarepusher, but in a more cartoonish, colorful strain. ‘Yellow Belly” is another standout, with its strategically skewered beats recalling the more IDM style of many of Ellison’s early productions, matched to vocals from Tierra Whack that approach the oblique hip-hop of Slum Village. The ever-versatile rising star rapper Denzel Curry features on “Black Balloons Reprise,” and takes on a particularly old-school form, expanding on the playful sounds teased in the last few tracks.  

Perhaps the most exciting guest on the album is enigmatic auteur David Lynch, who delivers a vivid, cryptic narrative on “Fire Is Coming.” Ellison himself has made forays into film, and there could hardly be a more satisfying acknowledgement than a collaboration with as iconic a figure as Lynch. The bold sonic surprises continue on “Actual Virtual,” featuring Shabazz Palaces, whose strikingly innovative take on hip-hop fits perfectly with Ellison’s craft. Things take on a gleeful, stargazing character with the jazz indulgence of “Andromeda” and “Remind U,” which seem very much in the style of longterm collaborator Thundercat, who himself shows up on “The Climb,” showcasing outlandish, forgotten fusion sensibilities that could hardly be less out of step with the contemporary musical landscape, but work swimmingly in the free-flowing and free-willing context of the album.

FlyLo gets more overtly funky than ever before on this album, and a prime example is the Toro y Moi-featuring “9 Carrots,” which takes free reigns with its wah-wah tones and slickly angular basslines. These sensibilities are elegantly sublimated on “Land of Honey,” with ethereal vocals from Solange over a sprawling, dreamy instrumental. Finally, “Hot Oct” circles back to the lofty musings that began the album, with pitched-down vocals declaring, “And now, the pain will carry beyond the flame / We embrace the beauty of the infinite.”

“Flamagra” is a unique album that stands out for its boldly free artistic integrity and the technical prowess with which its concepts are realized. Ellison surely has a style of his own, characterized by a rich musical heritage exceptionally well-informed by jazz nuance, combined with an up-to-date hip-hop sensibility, and a freeness of instinct that falls somewhere between hipster jest and avant academia. Within this general framework, however, he takes on widely varied forms with every album, following fresh new directions with alacrity. His latest record is a dynamic, seriously funky, and adventurous collection of vignettes that altogether make for a consistently engaging and fun-filled listen.

Flamagra” is available May 24 on Apple Music.