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There’s a quote that flies around social media every once in a while that is difficult to pin on any one source with any degree of certainty: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
A sentiment most often espoused by music snobs or wounded artists, it suggests the seemingly absurd notion of writing about a reaction to melody, rhythm and lyrics is simply too far-flung to have any real standing in the world. And yet here we are—I’m typing and you’re (hopefully!) reading.
Although I’ve only been reviewing for public consumption for a handful of years with Albumism, every album I’ve heard since 1987 has had its own review filed away in the darkest recesses of my dusty mind—some to be remembered, others to be forgotten, lost in the mists of time.
Flying Lotus’ new (and sixth) album is the kind of record that adds flesh and bones to the aforementioned quote—it renders criticism as a fairly pointless endeavor, flitting as it does between sounds and structures. It’s the kind of album that is a reviewer’s nightmare. It dares you to defy expectations and look past all the clues to its character that hit before you even hear a note, so it’s with some trepidation that I embark upon this particular review.
At 27 tracks long, it begs to be written off as overindulgent. I mean when did the last great album you listened to have more than twelve or thirteen songs, fourteen at a push? Then there are the song lengths to contend with. A minute-and-a-half, maybe slightly more, maybe slightly less, but it all points to ideas and themes rather than songs per se.
On the flip side, the guest list is impressive. George Clinton drops by for some funk flexing on “Burning Down The House,” Little Dragon lend their inimitable presence to “Spontaneous,” Solange pops up on “Land Of Honey” and rap’s new breed (Tierra Whack and Denzel Curry) stake their claims for leftfield artistry by working with Alice Coltrane’s grand-nephew.
From such auspicious lineages spring complex notions and more esoteric artistic endeavors—it is a fine line between pretense and earnestness that he manages to stay on the right side of just often enough to remain appealing.
Broadly speaking, the tracks with guest vocalists work better as actual songs with a recognizable (if, at times, loose) structure, while those in between are looser still, stuffed with instrumental flourishes and frustrating in their brevity. Sometimes the beauty of the composition is missed in the melee of instrumentation—every fizz, pop and cosmic key sound is utilized to the max but with the effect of crowding out the rest of the track.
When given space to breathe and grow though, there is great beauty here. The stuttering, spacious beat of “Yellow Belly” is weirdly affecting, while “All Spies” sounds like a leftfield Destiny’s Child single with its piston pump beat. The furious groove of “Takashi” is also given enough space and time to breathe, allowing for changes in character to develop through the five-minute duration. Clavinet keys and organ fuel the groove to a place that other tracks simply don’t have time to reach.
A trio of songs sit poised in the middle of the album to further demonstrate his winning touch. The astral projection of “Andromeda” begins with calm beauty before live drums and guitar build to a crescendo. “Remind U” is lush and filled with ascending keyboard lines and “Say Something” has a distinctly Parisian feel with its strings and piano. This is one occasion where the brief duration of the track feels like a punishment—it definitely leaves you wanting more.
Two guests shine in entirely expected ways towards the end of the album. Thundercat (having played bass on 90% of the album) pops up to lend his vocals to “The Climb” and the somnambulistic beauty “Land Of Honey” features Solange in all of her divine glory.
So it all boils down to a case of first impressions being right. Too many of the short instrumental pieces are weighed down with unnecessary flourishes or are stifled by their short duration—they just don’t go anywhere. The aural equivalent of an energy drink, they provide a momentary blast but don’t provide anything for the long haul.
Yet with some judicious editing to cut those away, there would be a really good album here. Who could have foreseen that 27 tracks would be too much?
Notable Tracks: "Andromeda" | “Land Of Honey” | "Remind U" | “Say Something” | “Takashi”