I might as well come out and say this now: Flying Lotus has, without a shadow of a doubt, made the best album of the year. Sorry FKA Twigs, sorry Caribou, sorry SBTRKT, sorry Aphex Twin and sorry to everyone else I haven’t the space to mention here. You’re Dead is, quite frankly, a masterpiece that I have an extremely hard time poking holes into.
I suppose I should admit that I am quite a massive Flying Lotus fan anyway; all of his albums ooze creativity and dynamism from every available crack and pore. That said, he’s never quite pulled off making the perfect album. I loved his last effort Until the Quiet Comes but occasionally his melancholia overtook the LP a bit too much, resulting in some tracks that were slightly stunted or underdeveloped (I still wish ‘DMT Song’ was at least a minute longer instead of being the sub-two minute stub it was).
Despite this, I’ve always admired FlyLo’s carefree abandon when it comes to making music. He is clearly as much of a music lover as he is a producer, which becomes apparent in the intricate blending of genres and styles that punctuate all his efforts. While he firmly rests in the general sphere of electronic knob-twiddlers, FlyLo has never been afraid to throw in influences from across the genre spectrum. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always come off. That is, until now.
Listening to the first track on You’re Dead, ‘Theme,’ is like being finally sucked into the real world of FlyLo. The sudden, tumbling drums and frenetic synths start and stop at will, leaving small gaps to breathe filled with the minimal yet no less energetic sound of jazz guitar. In its one minute and twenty four seconds, FlyLo packs in more punch than in the entirety of some of hi previous efforts. ‘Tesla’ is more of an improvised jazz scat than a work of electronica, while the power chords that run through ‘Cold Dead,’ covering hazy brass, laid-back piano and cacophonous drums. Indeed, in the four track that make up the first five minutes of the album, FlyLo injects the listener with an almost lethal dose of hysterical energy.
Things only really slow down for a minute during the lead single, ‘Never Catch Me.’ Beginning with a more languid classical piano and some hushed snare, things seem relatively quiet. That is, until Kendrick Lamar shows up to provide a vicious rap over the top of FlyLo’s masterful production. At first Lamar’s pace is relatively restrained, keeping time with his backing track. Eventually though, he begins to spit rhymes faster and faster until reaching an almost orgasmic point with the music where both seem to climax and settle off into the gentler, soulful refrain of “you’re never gonna catch me.” Perhaps on the basis of some of the best rapping Lamar has done since Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, it’s an apt closer to the album’s longest – but perhaps most engaging – track.
Fans of FlyLo will undoubtedly know that Stephen Ellison’s other alter ego is Captain Murphy. Named after a character from the Adult Swim comedy Sealab 2021, Murphy gives FlyLo a voice through the power of rap. On You’re Dead, the alter-ego shows up twice. The first time is during ‘Dead Man’s Tetris,’ perhaps the only track that can get away with using the phrase “hol’ up” without sounding completely silly. This might have something to do with the overall delivery Murphy gives. Over arpeggiated bleeps and otherwise minimalist production, Murphy’s performance is hardly bland. Instead, Murphy wraps himself around the words and seems to produce a medley of notes with each passing syllable, wrapping his voice around every sound and occasionally changing pitch at unexpected moments to keep the listener on their toes.
The second time Murphy appears is during the much quieter, languid second half of the album. While You’re Dead marvellously manages to sound like one long magnum opus rather than nineteen individual tracks, there is still a definite rift in tone between the bombastic first half and the mellow second. Murphy’s second appearance comes in the shape of ‘The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep,’ a positively strange and haunting track that is undoubtedly the centrepiece of this spiritual Side-B. Whereas on ‘Dead Man’s Tetris,’ Murphy used his slightly warbling voice to rap, here he appears to actually sing. What constitutes singing in this track, though, is something between soulful crooning and the hypnotic ramblings of a phantom. Even the first line is something of a curveball. As Murphy sings “someone has to pay the pay the bills” the first time, his delicate falsetto layers up and drifts over a slightly atonal drone pleasantly. Instantly repeating the line, Murphy’s voice drops extremely suddenly on the word ‘bills,’ plunging into a low-pitch warble of epic proportions. It’s voice manipulation at its best, setting both an eerie tone and being deliciously intriguing. You never quite know where he’ll go next and it’s this kind of unpredictability that really sets his performance apart from the rest.
That being said, it’s not particularly fair to dismiss the performances of Dirty Projectors regular Angel Deradoorian and terminally-underrated soul wonder Thundercat on You’re Dead’s second half. Deradoorian has no lines during her performance on ‘Siren Song’ but her tones glide effortlessly over the sensual guitar riffs and the slow but pounding percussion. Sampling her voice and using it on a loop alongside her breathing evokes the siren’s call that the song references, placing the listener into a mellow trance. Thundercat, meanwhile, appears only briefly on the short ‘Descent into Madness.’ Despite the brevity of his performance, his vocals effortlessly conjure the idea of descent. Tumbling down from a falsetto into a much deeper, foreboding tone during every line, the Californian deftly controls his voice and provides one of the most memorably hypnotic moments on the entire album. As he chants during what could loosely be termed as the chorus, it becomes clear that FlyLo’s production skills and Thundercat’s soulful tones are a match made in heaven.
This isn’t to say that other moments on the album that don’t feature vocals are somehow unmemorable. Indeed, some of FlyLo’s crowning glories on You’re Dead come about through just hearing him weave his epic sonic tapestries. By keeping each track relatively short, no track ever overstays its welcome, overcoming part of the problem with some of his previous works. On the other hand, there are times when FlyLo sticks around to build up his work. ‘Turkey Dog Coma’ is the second longest track on the entire LP, yet features no lyrics; just the gradual build-up of digitized beats, soft drum loops and flourishes of the electric guitar riffs that form such an integral part of the album’s overall identity. Despite being almost entirely made with synths, that instantly identifiable, sprawling, heart-racing electric guitar alone makes it one of the most organic tracks FlyLo may have ever produced.
In fact, the guitar on ‘Turkey Dog Coma’ sums up much of the reason why You’re Dead is such a triumph. Though it’s obvious FlyLo loves his synths, his beats and his samples, there’s something a little more intimate that emerges from the LP, something a little more human and warm that emerges from its intricate patterns. This something, found in the use of traditional instruments, the twang of the guitar, the tones of the trumpet and the comfort of the piano, is what makes You’re Dead stand out from the crowd. While individual vocal performances help make certain tracks stand out, overall it’s difficult to deny that FlyLo has finally produced his magnum opus, the album that will undeniably help him to stand out from his peers.