On his sixth studio album, Flying Lotus — and an all-star cast — went back to the books to raise the bar on the beat scene.
Exactly one week out from the release of Flamagra, Stephen Ellison is enjoying a snack as journalists light up his phone in rapid succession, only to realize the 30-minute block they’d been granted with Flying Lotus was never going to be enough. And Ellison’s keenly aware of his caller’s miscalculation.
It’s been five years, after all. And there are a lot of dots to connect. Since the release of You’re Dead! — a 2014 concept album that staged a cosmic confrontation with mortality — Ellison’s saved the heavy questions for larger formats. In 2016, he directed the short Royal, following up with a stomach-churning feature-length debut in Kuso, and, not-so-quietly, scored four other films in between. So when he tells me, during our brief conversation, “I ain’t been away,” I agree with him. If the release of his latest album, which dropped on May 24th, feels like some sort of revival, it shouldn’t. Ellison’s merely grown accustomed to pacing himself in the negative spaces he’s created on record and screen. It is, arguably, the defining element of Ellison’s methods: No matter how much the world changes, for better or worse, there will always be new shadows to loll in.
And fire, in its purest and most disastrous forms, is an instant shadow-caster.
At the jump of his sixth studio album, Ellison greets listeners with a low-key seance, summoning a spirit to light the way on this hero’s journey. Echoing over a warm wash of synthesizers, the guide welcomes his congregation — “We’re joined again in the space that you’ve created” — and quickly informs them of the new physics that govern their new selves. What broke boundaries for him in 2014, would never be adequate in a post-Black Messiah, post-Blonde, and, hopefully, a post-Donald Trump world.
For a pioneering producer that cut his teeth conducting 8-bit bedroom experiments in the home of his famed grandmother— Motown songwriter Marilyn McLeod, sister to the late Alice Coltrane — that meant matching (and hopefully, surpassing) their respective careers as students of music and the unending science behind it: “I’ve just been studying music lately, actually going back to traditional theory,” Ellison said. “Now that I’m in this thing, the wells don’t run dry, man. There’s so much shit to learn. You can learn forever.”
At the core of Flamagra is that awakening. If You’re Dead! was Ellison coming to terms with a mortal runtime, the follow-up is him seeking the divine in what’s left of it. With sources as singular as Ellison’s bloodline and as broad as his Lynchian explorations of the surreal and grotesque, Flamagra glides and plummets along an arc of cinematic scale with an all-star cast in tow.
“Post Requisite” grounds the bell in something heroic and terrestrial, commencing the album’s ascent with a galactic knock. “Heroes in a Half Shell” warp-speeds with a free jazz launch. Ellison finds a wayward traveler in Anderson .Paak on “More,” exchanging wisdom over a wispy, mid-tempo shuffle. “Capillaries” stutters and stumbles to the door of a burning home, where we’re met with the scorched howl of George Clinton and the ghost of “Atomic Dog.” On “Spontaneous,” Little Dragon’s Yukimi floats over sparkling production, clearing the passage for “Takashi,” an acid-house joyride down Rainbow Road. Tierra Whack blasts the ship with an off-kilter cadence on “Yellow Belly,” readying the shields for Denzel Curry’s machine-gun assault on the unflinching boom-bap bolstered “Black Balloons Reprise.”
Battered and gasping at the midway point, David Lynch himself chimes in with a damning prognosis on the road ahead. It’s important to note that a chance run-in with the Twin Peaks director brought Flamagra’s concept to full form — not just its incendiary tone, but in granting it a rich and visceral atmosphere to breathe in. “Now I think about the space a song exists in,” Ellison said. “Maybe the song is in the forest, so we need to hear some ambiance. It’s a stupid thing, but I like textures. Now, I start to think maybe this song is at night time in a field, and there’s crickets. Or maybe the song takes place inside of a burning house, and that’s what you hear: someone singing a song from inside of a burning house.”
The backend of the curve dissolves into a searching, at times bumpy, jazz-funk odyssey, dotted with instrumental interludes that tack on more in runtime than plot development. “Actually Virtual” rejoins Ellison and Shabazz Palaces on a spoken word screed, laced with polyrhythmic pattering and Thundercat’s wandering low-end wizardry. The BRAINFEEDER bassist reemerges on “The Climb,” easing the ship’s descent with a heavenly haunt. Finally, Solange meets the craft and crew at the entrance of the long-saught, rarely-seen “Land of Honey,” Flamagra‘s symphonic, slow-burning send-off.
The credits roll with a dedication to the late Mac Miller and a final word from the fire god, returning the ship to a torched — yet fertile — soil.
At the close of Flamagra, it’s unclear whether fire is friend or foe. The album’s allegory is, however, apt and all-encompassing. Actual wildfires ravaged 152 square miles of lush green mountainside in and outside of Malibu as the album took shape. Amongst the casualties: the ashram his great-aunt founded in the years following the death of her husband, John Coltrane. The smoke carried straight across the country and was reportedly seen from space. But a lifelong resident of Los Angeles isn’t easily shaken by an increasingly frequent hellscape transformation. Instead, Ellison channels that devastation and all its twisted beauty into a heady, high-minded statement of his personal growth in a range of mediums. As he continues to hone new textures and influences, synthesizing his love of cult film classics and a celestial jazz strain, it’s at least clear he’ll be ready to rise again from the ashes for his next chapter. Whichever form that takes.