You’re Dead! wants to make you feel like you’re dead, and to do this it’s going to bludgeon you with as many sounds as it can over a period of 39 minutes. The result is colourful, sinister and bewildering, but there is elegant method to the madness.
In response to this release, Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison) has been compared to two legends: Miles Davis and J Dilla. While many moments on the album do recall the wilder moments of Davis’s Bitches Brew and the short track lengths may evoke Dilla’s Donuts, comparisons like these become less compelling the further Ellison continues to blaze his own trail. Here he takes his previous styles, the maximalist drive of much-lauded Cosmogramma and the ambience of much-overlooked Until the Quiet Comes, and twists these conflicting sounds around the central concept of death. It is clear he draws primarily from jazz, hip-hop and electronic music, however the product cannot be assigned a genre so easily.
As we have come to expect with Flying Lotus records, each of the 19 tracks is meticulously detailed and reveals unheard layers on every listen. ‘Theme’, the opening track, blasts you with a wall of sound, before the trapdoor opens and for the next four short tracks you fall down a rabbit hole of squelching synthesizers, avant-guard jazz samples and collapsing beats, before arriving at the relatively stable ‘Never Catch Me’. Yet even these longer tracks rarely allow the listener to get too comfortable in any single groove.
The album avoids clichéd depictions of the afterlife in favour of a state of insanity and total disorientation. The wind-chimes, laughter, gunshots, explosions and distant murmurs that haunt the music reflect the confused lyrics: in ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’ Ellison’s rapper alter-ego Captain Murphey, struggles to understand that he has died, repeating “Hold up, hold up/ I bet you thinking that we dead/ Hold up, hold up/ I have this bullet in my head.” Notions of causality and morality are blurred as the layered vocals in ‘Coronus, the Terminator’ croon “It’s such a shame, you’ve seen my violent side/ Don’t make me go away/ Cause I’d like to save you.” Any search for meaning reduces to violence and noise in ‘Never Catch Me’ as feature Kendrick Lamar shouts “This that final destination, this that find some information/ This that find some inspiration, this that crack, the instillation/ This that quantum jump and that fist pump and that bomb detonation.”
The uncompromising momentum of You’re Dead! demands your unwavering concentration. With most tracks lasting under or around two minutes, few could stand alone outside the context of the album, and if there is anything lacking it is that some of these shorter tracks might have been allowed to settle for a little longer. While the features, including Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, on the longer centrepieces provide much-needed footholds amid the barrage, this purposefully convoluted album is unlikely to convince those who already see Flying Lotus’ music as nothing more than a fool proof way to get a headache.
By Richard Bingham