On a rainy Friday night in early October, I said goodbye to my roommate and a friend of ours, grabbed my coat, and left the bar we had been haunting to head for home. It was relatively early in the evening – only about 11 or 11:30 – and I couldn’t have been out longer than an hour or so, but yet here I was, hailing a cab to go home. The reason for leaving? I was going to listen to Flying Lotus’ new album, “You’re Dead!,” while it streamed on Youtube for 24 hours as part of the “Day of You’re Dead!” promotion. Not only that, but I’d made plans to chat about it with two of my close friends from college over Facebook. I’d already listened to the album twice since the stream began earlier that afternoon, but this time I got to listen to it with (albeit digitally) two of my closest friends, both of whom were also extremely excited for the album’s release, and who’s opinions I really valued.
While preparing to write this article, I went back through the transcript of that conversation, and found it to be surprisingly valuable. I got to see some of mine and my friends’ earliest reactions to the album in almost real time. We would get side-tracked occasionally, but for the most part we were simply reacting to the album as it happened. Though I’m not exactly sure which tracks were playing as certain reactions happened, the key takeaway from our online listening party was how quickly we realized that something big was happening. Though it incorporated many of the ideas and sounds that Flying Lotus – known to his friends as Steven Ellison – had touched on in the past, he’d found something new with “You’re Dead!” First and foremost, Ellison had taken a huge risk and delivered what was essentially a free jazz record, presenting complex, virtuosic music while trying not to alienate his core fans. Beyond that, he was tackling big, difficult themes in a way that was extremely accessible to the average listener.
With “You’re Dead!” Ellison has hit on something new. It’s a challenging record that throws popular trends by the wayside to make room for its creator’s unique vision, one that beckons the listener in and introduces them to new ideas that they may not have contemplated before. It’s a rare piece of art that truly attempts to expand the minds of its audience, and after listening to it only a few times, it was abundantly clear that “You’re Dead!” was far and away my favorite album from 2014.
From the opening bars of “Theme,” it’s clear that Ellison is trying something new. His previous album, 2012’s “Until the Quiet Comes,” was ambient and ethereal, a beautiful album that seemed to burrow its way into you’re consciousness when you were only half paying attention. The startling, disorienting start of “Theme,” does the exact opposite, knocking you off your feet and forcing you to listen. There is no rhythm, no meter, no key. Only pure, loud, sound. Like Ellison’s head on the album’s cover, “Theme” shoots right through your skull, knocking you backwards and cackling as you try and get your bearings. And then, just as you start to get accustomed to the sound being presented, the rest of the song kicks in, and makes things even harder. A-tonal, jazz-oriented, and virtuosic as all hell, keyboards, bass and guitar kick in with a drum beat that starts out jagged, but quickly starts to swing as Ellison and his band move through the next few, equally complex songs. This isn’t popular music. Or, rather, this isn't what popular music is supposed to sound like.
That all said however, it wasn't the complexity that surprised me the most about “You’re Dead!” when I was first listening to it. Ellison’s music has always been complex, it’s part of what is so appealing about him. He’s also always had some elements of jazz in his work, a likely side effect of sharing blood with jazz royalty John and Alice Coltrane. No, what surprised me most wasn’t the fact that “You’re Dead!” was jazz influenced, but that it was essentially a jazz album. This isn’t an electronic album with free jazz influences. No, this is a free-jazz album that pulls in elements of hip-hop as well as experimental and ambient electronic music, blending them into its very own sound.
It’s the kind of thing that forces the listener to sit up and take notice. Regardless of how you feel about jazz – and particularly this extremely complex sub-genre – one has to admit that it takes guts to release an album like this. Jazz hasn’t been considered popular music for over 60 years, yet with “You’re Dead!” Ellison has released an album that is arguably more influenced by it than by the instrumental hip-hop and electronic scenes in which he made his name. It is a courageous example of an artist bucking the trend, taking their work exactly where they want it to go, and trusting that their audience will follow once they’ve had a chance to digest things. In today’s climate of dwindling record sales and increasing pressure to create something that the masses will love, artists who follow nothing but their own vision should be applauded.
Though “You’re Dead!” definitely see’s Ellison scratch his jazz itch more than ever before, his other musical tendencies are still very present. Hip-hop and beats records, experimental electronic music, ambient compositions, soul and R&B, it’s all here, but it’s blended by Ellison and his studio musicians into a new kind of amalgam. It’s in that blend of styles that “You’re Dead!” still manages to remain accessible to Ellison’s core listeners. Even at its most difficult and daunting, “You’re Dead!” always gives even the most casual listener something to hang on to, to nod their head, tap their foot, and, at times, even dance to.
While all the songs seem to effortlessly blend into one another – as has come to be expected on a Flying Lotus record at this point – the album itself can be divided up into several shorter, song cycles. The first four tracks for example seem to build and build in intensity, finally culminating in “Never Catch Me,” arguably “You’re Dead!”’s standout track. Entire essays could be devoted to Kendrick Lamar’s intense and verbose lyrics, which take on the point of view of the departed and explore dozens of possible reactions to their own death. In less than 3 minutes he tackles the spiritual and philosophical implications of passing on, while spanning the 5 stages of grief as he departs from this realm. And on Lamar’s heels, in one of the most spectacular one-two-punches of 2014, Captain Murphy (Ellison’s hip-hop alter-ego, making his first appearance on a Flying Lotus record) takes on the voice of the deceased for “Dead Man’s Tetris,” still in utter disbelief of his own demise, only to meet Snoop Dogg, who in his role as gatekeeper of the afterlife, confirms Murphy and Kendrick’s demise, and introduces us to this new plane of existence.
Kendrick and Snoop’s appearances on “You’re Dead!” are indicative of the caliber of musicians that fill out the album’s extensive guest list. The album utilizes more live instrumentation than any of Ellison’s previous releases, and sees contributions from vocalists such as Niki Randa, Angel Deradoorian, and Kimbra Johnson, not to mention a studio band made up of great jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington and Deantoni Parks, and instrumental contributions from “Metalocalypse” creator and rising guitar hero Brendan Small. as well as the legendary keyboardist and genre bender Herbie Hancock. However, at the core of the “You’re Dead!” band is the virtuosic bassist Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat. In addition to his own duo of fantastic R&B albums, Bruner has been a longtime collaborator with Ellison, with the pair working together on every Flying Lotus release since 2010’s “Cosmogramma.” “You’re Dead!” sees Bruner playing on every track, essentially giving him the role of Ellison’s musical foil. Though he frequently plays complex, masterful bass parts, Bruner’s bass gives “You’re Dead!” a strong backbone. No matter how far out and strange the rest of the album gets, Bruner’s bass parts give listeners something to hang on to, a safe place to return to before venturing out into the vast stretches of the afterlife.
All of this would only mean so much if Ellison didn't have anything interesting to say with “You’re Dead!,” but the themes he explores on the album are absolutely fascinating. The idea of thematically linking an album is nothing new to Ellison, in fact all of his albums to date have had some kind of theme to them. “1983” delved into the sounds of his birth year, while the hyperactive beats of “Los Angeles” were an attempt to capture the feeling of his home city. With “Cosmogramma” he delved into more spiritual territory, exploring the planets of our solar system and their relationship to heaven and hell, while on “Until the Quiet Comes” he presented his thesis on the thin line between dreaming and waking. Presenting a theme with each of his albums has helped Ellison keep things interesting, and really solidifies his releases as singular albums rather than simple collections of songs.
With “You’re Dead!,” Ellison takes on a theme that is simultaneously more difficult and more relatable than ever before. Regardless of where we come from, of what path we take in life, death is one of the few events that is experienced by all human beings, and yet we know little to nothing about it. But even though it is a universal event, Ellison doesn't assume death is universally experienced. Rather, he tries to present various possibilities of death, covering the range from Snoop Dogg’s gatekeeper to the afterlife, to the angel of death that torments the listener on “Coronus, The Terminator,” to the fall into insanity that Thundercat presents on “Descent into Madness.” Ghosts of Ellison’s heroes and friends – J Dilla, Alice Coltrane, Austin Peralta – haunt the album, but never turn its tone too bleak. Hell, that exclamation mark in the title lends the whole album some levity to begin with. Ellison isn’t trying to present a conclusion with regards what happens after the moment of death and beyond, he’s simply exploring the possibilities while holding tight to one key assumption: that death is not the end.
There is something truly unique happening on “You’re Dead!,” something that goes beyond the complex theme, the amazing guest spots, and the fusion of sounds Ellison has been exploring on his previous releases. Its free-jazz style and dark, complex theme of instantly makes it stand out in today’s popular music scene, not only because you don’t hear these kinds of things very often, but because it’s by no means popular among listeners. It takes a lot of guts to make an album purely because you want to hear it, and a lot of trust in your audience to know that they’ll follow you wherever you take them with that album.
And in the end, that’s what made “You’re Dead!” my favorite album of 2014. The skill involved in creating a record like this is notable, and the courage it took in deciding to do so should be applauded. Ellison has given us a virtuosic, a-tonal, free jazz album, and yet somehow made sure it was still accessible to his listeners. He’s created high-art for the masses, a symphony designed for the jukebox. With “You’re Dead!” Steven Ellison has delivered an album that challenges his audience and expands their minds, while still giving them something to dance to.