FlyLo's New Melodic Flights

Urban Poetics

For the past decade, Flying Lotus has recklessly yet purposefully swerved across musical lanes, integrating elements of jazz, neo-soul, trip-hop, and electronic into a distinctively hip-hop aesthetic. A devout disciple of renowned Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla and great-nephew of cultish jazz experimentalist Alice Coltrane, wife to jazz giant John Coltrane, Lotus (government name: Steven Ellison) is a human musical depository, the type who heedlessly devours stacks of records, regurgitating them into quirky mp3s. He effortlessly glides among genres, with his signature skittish percussion often standing as the sole landmark in his romping musical explorations.

In his 2010 release, “Cosmogramma,” Ellison let himself ascend almost too far into this cacophonous, cluttered sonic stratosphere, often absconding completely from melodic concerns for the sake of exposing his technical savvy. At this point, he has arguably transcended the title of hip-hop producer, and for that matter all other measures of genre. If “Cosmogramma” was Lotus’ technical tour de force, then his latest release “Until the Quiet Comes” is the scaling down of his sample attention deficit disorder for the sake of a more pared down, melodically digestible offering.

A Pitchfork documentary filmed in August at the magazine’s annual showcase festival in Chicago captures a pre-show FlyLo (as he is affectionately known in music circles) giddily hopping between backstage and muddy gen-pop crowds to secure himself enough marijuana to fill an Altoids case (which he describes as “not quite the Pulp Fiction briefcase”). On the topic of his then unreleased “Until the Quiet Comes,” Ellison remarked, “I feel like I’ve worked the hardest I’ve ever worked on a record this time around. I tried to trim the fat in a lot of instances, and I tried to just keep everything focused. It was kind of a challenge for me to pull back and strip things down.” As if to echo his youthful behavior at the Pitchfork festival, Ellison described his reductionist approach even more directly in “The Wire” magazine, claiming that he designed “Until the Quiet Comes” to be “a children’s record, a record for kids to dream to.”

Listening to “Until the Quiet Comes” is like entering an abandoned townhouse in a post-industrial city and shuffling through each past resident’s old belongings: it is at once playful and eerie, ecstatic and melancholy. Lotus explores a diverse collection of melodic themes, refracting them through grating, dissonant synths, frenetic drum patterns, and dissected vocal samples. Indeed, the defining feature of this album relative to Lotus’ past work is his unrelenting focus on melody, a feature which was previously either sequestered below layers of curiously arranged samples or punctuated by hard-hitting drums. These fleeting moments of infectious melody are always intruded upon by more dissonant musical tangents, as if to thwart the listener from settling into any single mood. He giveth and he taketh away, but what he gives gets stuck in your head—for weeks on end.

The album is best listened to front-to-back; I had to become accustomed to this experience while endlessly streaming it on NPR in the week prior to its official release. That said, there are several highlights worth noting—moments that I futilely scrambled to replay on my iPhone. On “Sultan’s Request,” FlyLo starts with an infectiously heavy synth melody, eventually sprinkling oscillating variations on the melody before it drops into a heavily swung rhythm that recalls a late-nineties J. Dilla beat. “Putty Boy Strut” is arguably the album’s lightest moment; Lotus infantilizes an adult’s voice and augments it with heavily textured vox generators, eventually yielding something as close to a playground anthem as the so-called “childrens’ album” gets. On “See Thru To U” featured artist Thundercat chants, “Dream of love and light and laughter,” over a lush, fuzzy Rhodes keyboard arrangement, which eventually drops into the album’s most rhythmically engaging offering. On “Electric Candyman,” Lotus’ moaning, fuzzy synths undergird Thom Yorke’s ethereal, bleary repeated commands of, “Look into the mirror, and look into the mirror and say my name.” The emotional tenor of the album reaches a fever pitch on “Me Yesterday//Corded,” when Lotus strips everything down to a stilted and distorted piano loop. “Getting There,” featuring Niki Randa, is as close to vintage FlyLo as the album dares to venture. It is also the centerpiece in the enigmatic Kahlil Joseph-directed short film sampling various tracks from the album.

If the album were to have any drawback for Lotus’ devoted audience, it would likely be that he has, for the most part, abandoned his characteristically raw hip-hop drums in favor of melodic explorations. That said, the album still carries the same moodiness that his prior work unapologetically pursued. This is headphone music at its best, meant to be enjoyed on a late night bus ride home from work, or in tandem with a cigarette outside Lamont during a long night of writing.

—Columnist Edward L. Monahan can be reached at emonahan@fas.harvard.edu.

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