ALBUM REVIEW by Mo Jamma
Artist: Flying Lotus
Released: 20 April 2010 (Warp Records)
Genre: Psychedelic hip-hop
Flying Lotus is a name that escapes most people. It sounds exotic, foreign and supernatural. It evokes images of a rare martial arts film one might find on top of a VHS bargain bucket, glowing like a long-lost relic, begging for a hip-hop artist to remix its soundtrack into a new mixtape. To the most inquisitive fans of underground music Flying Lotus is none other than Steven Ellison. Born in 1983 into a family with a significant musical history – his great-aunt and uncle were musicians Alice and John Coltrane – Flying Lotus’ beginnings in 2006 were rather obscure, the debut album, 1983, barely gained much in terms of acclaim. Its strange blend of wonky (an actual genre of music) and trip hop elements alienated a market flooded by the likes of commercial hip-hop. ranging from Rihanna’s pulsating rhythm in “SOS” to Justin bringing sexy back.
Undeterred, Flying Lotus continued to experiment with electronic music, weaving a tapestry of sound that eventually culminated into his own Gilgamesh epic, the 2010 game changing album Cosmogramma. The record’s name came about (initially) from a simple mistake. Lotus was listening to a recorded Ashram lecture by Alice Coltrane and thought that she had pronounced “cosmic drama” as “cosmogramma”. Later, he found out that cosmogramma is a real term, a word pertaining to the study of the universe, and heaven and hell.
Cosmogramma came after a bad time for Lotus. His great-aunt Alice died in 2007 and his mother passed away from complications linked to diabetes in 2008. And it shows. In his own words he wanted to create a deeper experience through music, rather than just a record made for the times, something his mother would have been proud of.
Gone are the more streetwise and trendy endeavours seen in his two previous efforts, 1983 and Los Angeles. Instead, Lotus rewards his listeners with a more layered and psychedelic experience. But it’s not just psychedelia that greets our ears this time around. We the listeners are treated to left-field hip-hop, nu jazz and experimental beats, jaunting us into a distant galaxy far, far away. The album in its entirety is both a masterpiece and a master class of a composition.
Cosmogramma‘s exploratory nature begins with a bombardment of Atari-sounding beats in “Clock Catcher” that loop for a brief 10-seconds before becoming less frantic and more controlled. Lotus’ video gaming influences can be detected in the music, confirmed in an interview in which he described early Nintendo games as a catalyst for his art. From the point of ignition we’re already catapulted into a far-away region of sub-space where a procession of hi-hats and crisp Asiatic effects remind us that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
“Pickled!” reintroduces the fast-paced approach again. The track’s beeps, bloops and paranoid intensity project us further into the mind of a digital Beethoven. It draws up an imagined chase sequence through deep space, ending with what seems like a gradual fade out at the 1:56 mark, only to explode once more for an additional 13 seconds at 2:01. The heroes escape the empire once more.
The oddly named “Nose Art” bops up and down with its science-fiction arrangements and arcade-like rhythm. Lotus demonstrates his eclectic taste in music by sampling “Pause” from Art of Noise’s The Seduction of Claude Debussy (released 1999). Interestingly enough, that particular album was a remixing of French composer Claude Debussy’s work, combining various traits of drum and bass, jazz, opera and hip-hop. The “Pause” sample, a narration, can be heard near the beginning of “Nose Art” and further solidifies Cosmogramma‘s tactful production.
The Art of Noise described The Seduction of Claude Debussy as “the soundtrack to a film that wasn’t made about the life of Claude Debussy.” Their claim shifts this review to the next track in Cosmogramma, the aptly named “Cosmic Drama”. The dream-like essence of this piece harkens back to the classical compositions heard in old-school science-fiction films – for example, Kubrick’s visionary piece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Who knows? Maybe Cosmogramma was intended to be the soundtrack to the best afrofuturist film never made.
“Zodiac Shit” is where the album gains momentum and the Flying Lotus sound is taken to the nth degree. The thumping beat drives on for about a minute and twenty seconds before shushing down for a moment to sound like classical period music. All of that is forgotten in a few heartbeats when the hip-hop beat returns in full-force.
Other highlights include the insanely catchy “Computer Face/Pure Being”, which samples a number of sources, including a Star Trek photon torpedo; “And the World Laughs With You”, a collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke who stood front and centre for the haunting vocals; the jazzy “Arkestry”, an obvious reference to Sun-Ra, who was a prominent composer and leader of the afrofuturist movement; and “MmmHmm”, a tropical soundscape masterminded with fellow Brainfeeder member Thundercat.
The front cover that promotes the album was designed by Californian artist Leigh McCloskey. The intention behind it was to represent our collective position in the grand scheme of the universe. McCloskey may have drawn inspiration from the imagery found in the works of Sun-Ra. Much like John Coltrane, Sun-Ra (real name Herman Poole Blount) was a prominent figure in the world of experimental jazz. He was known for his “cosmic philosophy” and unique insight into the social conditioning of black people. In fact, the shining star that embellishes Cosmogramma can be seen in the photography of Sun-Ra.
All things considered, the album’s cover works for what Flying Lotus was trying to achieve with this milestone of electronica. The black spots orbiting the central disc resemble planets caught in the ensuing supernova, the beats generated by Lotus as the resulting matter left behind in their wake. The back cover and CD are decorated with abstract typography. When cobbled together the presentation cements Cosmogramma as a record for our times and beyond.
Versions and Pricing
Cosmogramma can be purchased from various outlets, both online and offline. The CD costs £8.73 (around $13) on Amazon and the digital version costs £7.99 (roughly $12) on iTunes. Prices may vary from other retailers.
The Japanese version contains the limited edition track “Velvet Cake”.
Cosmogramma is an entire star system. It’s a spiritual journey into the heart and soul of a man who turned his grief into a commemorative art piece that honours the legacy of two women who inspired him to become the genius that he is. A “mad beats scientist” as described by some, Flying Lotus made his mark on an already oversaturated music genre with Cosmogramma and continued to make it with his remarkable follow-ups: Until the Quiet Comes and You’re Dead! To summarise the experience in one sentence: catch the celestial tide before it leaves without you.