First Listen

First Listen: Flying Lotus, 'Cosmogramma'

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hide captionSteven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus.

courtesy of the artist
Flying Lotus

Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus.

courtesy of the artist

The first time I heard Flying Lotus, I was watching the Cartoon Network, eating Cherry Garcia and waiting for the next episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, when an 8-bit fireball came bouncing through my TV speakers. I had a visceral reaction to the sound: I dropped my spoon, contorted my face and nodded my head to the infectious beat that filled my ears. Then Aqua Teen Hunger Force came on and I forgot about the whole thing.

I would find out later that the song was the title track from Flying Lotus' debut album, 1983. Since that first encounter with the music of Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison), I've had similar impulses to drop whatever I'm doing when a song of his comes on and bounce to his unique brand of beat-making. Until I heard Cosmogramma, that is.

Don't be fooled: I still put all else on hold, but no longer am I simply bouncing to the rhythms, because Ellison has gone far beyond just making hip-hop beats. It's music that not only makes your head nod; it also makes it work.

Critics and fans have called his style "wonky," an umbrella term used to describe the unstable meters and midrange synths found in dubstep and hip-hop, as well as in some electro. Ellison has described his own work as "surrealist hip-hop," but when I listen to Cosmogramma, I hear a celestial brand of jazz. He has extended the genre into the electronic realm, building syncopated rhythms with syncopated timbres — which isn't surprising, considering that his greatest influence on the album was his aunt, Alice Coltrane. She was creating avant garde jazz compositions long before Ellison started working on a Roland 505.

His many collaborations — with relative Ravi Coltrane, bassist Thundercat, harp prodigy Rebekah Raff and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke — have brought a new live dimension to Ellison's work. No longer are his beats simply computer concoctions, but instead luxuriant compositions with an inconceivably diverse range of sounds. He mingles a diverse array of rhythms with everything from violins to train whistles, using a palette of scatting, screeching, whirling and whooping. This can have an overwhelming, even vertiginous effect, though Ellison does balance his chaos with flashes of serenity. This is still music that moves me, but now it does so in more ways than one.

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First Listen