To see Flying Lotus perform is to understand the careful orchestration that marks his interpretation of hip-hop. Equipped with a laptop, sampler, and drum machine, Steven Ellison — the man behind the moniker — manipulates his tools to create textured electronic compositions. But don’t let the stuffy language fool you. Along with the technical elements of his music is an infectious energy and style. Throughout his set, he is in constant motion, occasionally looking up to flash an appreciative smile. If he is not pulling from the Flying Lotus catalog, which features two studio albums, he is probably bumping one of his numerous collaborations, including remixes for Kanye West and Radiohead. It is these engaging qualities that define Ellison as a live musician. And on Cosmogramma, Ellison adapts the flow and improvisation of his live performance to a bold and beautiful arrangement of songs, creating his most successful effort to date.
From opener “Clock Catcher,” Cosmogramma presents itself as a more eclectic progression of Flying Lotus’s sound. One of the most striking aspects of the song, and the album, is the incorporation of live instrumentalists. Initially, a harp hook from Rebekah Raff, noted for work her previous work with varied artists such as Harry Partch and Ghostface Killah, surfaces among a precise, trotting beat. And as the album expands, key contributions from Stephen “Thundercat” Brunner on bass and vocals (the Robin to Fly Lo’s Batman on this one) along with Ellison’s cousin Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone (son of the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane) add texture and expert musicianship. In a way, Ellison is reclaiming his birthright: In addition, his grandmother, Marilyn Mcleod, wrote and produced popular songs for Motown, and his aunt Alice Coltrane was the harpist and jazz avant-garde pioneer.
This spirit of collaboration shows Fly Lotus’s maturation as an artist and provides the album’s most compelling moments. Radiohead fans are sure to drool over Thom Yorke’s haunting vocals on the standout track “…And The World Laughs With You.” The song captures the feel of Kid A while imprinting Fly Lo’s futuristic computer sounds and headphone-filling bass. Equally as unforgettable is the melancholy vocal work of Laura Darlington on the aptly titled song “Table Tennis.”
Yet, even though the steady presence of featured performances helps beautify Cosmogramma, this is essentially Ellison’s crowning achievement. The album is sequenced with a sense of purpose, evidential from the promo being presented as a long continuous track. Over the course of 45 minutes, there are peaks of explosive energy, starting with “Pickled!” and “Nose Art,” which ultimately give way to more emotionally nuanced meditations such as “Intro// Cosmic Dream” and “Zodiac Shift.” (Did the names give it away?) Although some later songs may lose strictly beat-based fans, it is in the jazz interludes like “German Haircut” where new admirers may be gained. As such, Cosmogramma is a work to revisit and reflect upon. Enjoy the orchestra and admire the conductor.