Flying Lotus, whose real name is Steven Ellison, is back with his latest album, Flamagra, and it’s a huge hit with the critics and the public. Flamagra has hit the top of the Dance Electronic charts, and according to Billboard, it sold the equivalent of 13,000 album units. It’s the second album that debuted at number one for Lotus, and his last album, You’re Dead!, also debuted at the top of the charts in 2014.
It has indeed been five years since Lotus has put out a new collection of tunes, and in the time in-between albums, he’s worked on his own label, Brainfeeder, and he signed artists such as Thundercat and Tokiamonsta. Lotus loves film as well. He’s helmed his own movie, Kuso, in 2016, and he’s also scored films as well. The Fire Within
Lotus loves the imagery of fire, hence the title of his latest album, Flamagra. “The past few years, there’s been really crazy fires in L.A.,” he explained to Billboard. “A lot of that imagery has been in my head. The thing that [fire] does, and how much we need fire and how much we hate fire, is all important.” (At home, Lotus loves to sit by the fireplace and be entranced by the flames.)
Lotus came up with a concept of a contained fire in Los Angeles that couldn’t be stopped. “What would that be like as a thing for the city, or any American city?” Not only did the fires of L.A. inspire him, but he also knew a friend who died at an infamous rave fire in Oakland, CA. “As someone who plays at clubs and warehouses and stuff, that story messed with my head for some time.”
Lotus’s album concept and fascination with fire also fascinated the cult film director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive), who directed the video for Fire is Coming. “I’ve been trying to get David Lynch to do anything for me for like at least 10-15 years.”
The Star Studded Guests of Flamagra
Like a lot of top hip-hop albums, Flamagra has big guest stars including Anderson .Paak, Solange and Tierra Whack. And working with Solange, he realized being high tech in the studio isn’t always the way to go.
She liked to use a cheaper SM-57 microphone, “a really cheap, shitty microphone,” even though Lotus has way better equipment available at the ready. “It’s like the first microphone you buy when you have a studio,” but he saw the benefits right away. “You can play the beat loud in the room with the microphone signing on top of the beat…It’s really good for getting ideas out and sketching them. If you don’t have lyrics yet and you’re not writing in a book, you can kind of freestyle.”
Returning to the Fire
Flying Lotus made a movie between albums, and he’s also provided the music for anime shows. Even though it’s been five years in-between albums, he told Vulture, “I don’t feel like I’ve been gone at all.”
It wasn’t easy for him to make an album in-between his other projects, but as he discovered, the best work can often write itself. “Whenever I’m like, ‘Oh I got an idea,’ they end up showing me what they are. It’s not me saying what it is. I’m like, ‘I want to do the project like this,’ and it ends up being totally different than what I imagined. But that’s part of it. I like to be surprised and I like that moment where it all could be anything. You get surprised by the work, the work reveals itself. It blossoms.”
Where fire can be destructive, Flying Lotus wants this fire to bring positive energy and light. “I want it hopeful,” he continues. “I want my record to inspire some hope in people. It’s trying to bring good energy to the world right now. I can’t let darkness be what guides my decisions. I can’t let that be what guides how I treat people. I can’t let that be what drives my art either. I’m supposed to do the thing that helps people, not the thing that makes people feel shitty.”
Even with the song “You’re Dead!,” he wanted to bring a positive message, not something morbid. “You’re alive. You’re going to die. Let’s celebrate the beauty of that, because we ain’t go no choice.” At the same time, Flying Lotus adds that the title “You’re Dead!” should have had “a dot-dot-dot instead of an exclamation point.”
Remembering Mac Miller
Flamagra has two songs that are in memory of Mac Miller, Find Your Own Way Home, and Thank You, Malcolm. “Mac was the best because he was that dude who would always come over with a new batch [of music], every season.”
Mac Miller was so prolific, it gave Flying Lotus the kick in the ass he needed to get back to making music himself. “It always reminded me that I needed to get back on my shit because he was working. He made me feel lazy…”
The Public Reaction to Flamagra
In reviewing Flamagra, Rolling Stone writes, “One might think of Flamagra as Flying Lotus’s Apocalypse Now, or The Wall – it shows an artist at the height of their power, able to realize their most over-the-top imaginings, delivering a sprawling near-masterpiece teetering at the brink of overkill…There are lots of ideas here, and lots of notes – a plus or a minus depending on your mindset – distributed over 27 tracks.”
The critics have also pointed out how these songs are short in length, and as NPR reports, “Rather than make typical verse-chorus songs, the artist goes for curious eerie little environments. It’s part of how he’s re-imagining that outdated construct of the long-playing album. The project plays like a high-speed chase through a carnival fun house – a sideshow attraction of the mind.”
And Pitchfork writes that with his sixth album, Flying Lotus’s “sweeping jazz-funk feels limitless. It sounds more like a sketchbook with FlyLo crafting each minute with great care and technical dexterity…This time, there is no explicit theme; the through line holding Flamagra together seems to be the creative process itself.”
It’s a remarkable time for hip-hop albums, with so much incredible creativity flooding the world. With Flamagra, it looks like Flying Lotus, and hip-hop, is hitting a remarkable creative peak.