Steven Ellison has never stopped repping for Los Angeles. From the sophomore Flying Lotus album that bears the city’s name to his continuing patronage of its incredible local jazz scene via the Brainfeeder record label, his musical arc travels and travails through his home in physical and virtual ways, bringing its spirit and its soul to listeners worldwide. Though hip-hop played no small role in his come up, he subsequently tapped into his literal Coltrane family lineage and elevated himself from J Dilla’s earthly heir apparent to a near-celestial Afrofuturist force.
Some five years since dropping You’re Dead!, an exemplary if concise aural exploration of the afterlife, Ellison returns now with the significantly longer and more thematically abstract Flamagra. The interlude-length Capillaries calls back not-so-subtly to Ellison’s Los Angeles beat scene roots, a narrative context that, at this point in his formidable discography, no longer suits. Still, as most of these 27 tracks come in tidily under the three-minute mark, his knack for working little miracles within tight time constraints proves ubiquitously evident amid the synthesiser scramble of Inside Your Home and the classic video game putter of All Spies. That said, when he does stretch things further, as on the euphoric and frenetic Takashi, out springs an open-ended cosmic jazz sensibility. This is tempered elsewhere with the more accessible tenure of fusion’s foundational funk, with George Clinton himself emoting over the rubbery din on Burning Down The House.
As was the case with You’re Dead! and its 2012 predecessor Until The Quiet Comes, Ellison isn’t here alone. An intergenerational set of players and guests grace Flamagra, including Herbie Hancock, Solange Knowles, David Lynch, and Tierra Whack. A FlyLo session vet dating back to the ambitious Cosmogramma, Stephen Thundercat Bruner appears on nearly all these songs, his voluminous bass mischief showcased prominently in the mix. After the impish Drunk project, there’s something refreshing about hearing his signature fretwork in the relatively more sober context of Post Requisite and Pygmy as well as playful R&B groovers Debbie Is Depressed and The Climb.
Though Brainfeeder-supported jazz phenom Kamasi Washington is absent from the credits, several L.A. affiliates join in to lend their like-minded musical perspectives. Standout West Coast Get Down keyboardist Brandon Coleman gives spaced-out rap entity Shabazz Palaces room to freak out the normies on Actually Virtual, while the virtuosic Miguel Atwood-Ferguson goes halfsies with Ellison on the supper club hip-hop of FF4.
Even with the considerable distance between it and You’re Dead!, the techno-organic hybrid Flamagra can’t help but sound like its delayed sequel. Its more approachable moments like the Anderson Paak feature More draw obvious sonic parallels, to their detriment, to older numbers like the Kendrick Lamar brain bender Never Catch Me. Still, at this stage in Ellison’s refined approach to composition and creation, a slightly self-derivative work stands in superiority to the overall field. As such, it makes for one glorious little stopgap that will hopefully guide the Flying Lotus project towards an even brighter future.