Flying Lotus’ 2006 debut, 1983, was a spacey expedition through the hazy brain of Steven Ellison, the grand nephew of jazz great Alice Coltrane and mystery man behind Adult Swim’s captivating bumper music. But while 1983 properly introduced Lotus’ agitated blend of head-nodding electronica, it resembled Detroit producer J-Dilla’s legendary style of crate-digging excess. A song like “Shifty” mimicked the hip-hop icon to a T: canned drums and buzzing synthesizers did a delicate dance, resulting in a freestyle-ready concoction suited for a Dilla tribute tape. “Hello” paid homage to the composer’s ambient side — wah-wah sounds and light squeaks amid a wash of stuttered percussion. Close your eyes, and you could almost hear Dilla collaborator Dwele humming the notes.
“And he doesn’t just get by, Lotus dominates his domain with a smile and a head nod, fiddling the controllers with an adolescent exuberance that’s remarkably engaging and surprisingly disarming.”
That would be the last time we’d hear Lotus so grounded. From there, the California producer reached for the cosmos with stellar results, his iconoclastic vibrations growing more restless with each release. On the sophomore Los Angeles, Lotus seemed caught between two different worlds. Vestiges of 1983 remained, but clearly he sought something a bit more visceral. Something more inclusive and more diverse. And the results were just as woozy as his debut. FlyLo makes music for your head and soul, dancing is just the byproduct. At its core, there was something very surreal about this art. Ornate sounds felt distant. Faint crackling resembled old vinyl. Transient melodies fell into place. Lotus’ music doesn’t progress, per se. Rather, it lingers about, wafting throughout sonic space until it floats away.
That’s why Lotus is different: he refines his edge with hip hop, jazz, and soul, sometimes all in one song. And he doesn’t just get by, Lotus dominates his domain with a smile and a head nod, fiddling the controllers with an adolescent exuberance that’s remarkably engaging and surprisingly disarming. Such restiveness was the hallmark of 2010’s Cosmogramma, a frenetic collection of oceanic dance rhythms, jazz loops, and agitated melancholy. “I felt this strange sense of urgency, like jumping out of an airplane,” Lotus recently told SPIN Magazine. The results were fascinating, albeit a little tough to digest at first. Cosmogramma was an album you sat with. It worked on headphones and car stereos, in your apartment or at your mom’s cookout. Lotus wants people to listen on his terms. His nonchalant attitude personifies youthful rebellion, though he’s almost 30 years old.
With his new album, Until the Quiet Comes, Lotus takes his place among the greats — not just in electronic music, but all of music. While Cosmogramma was an all-in effort, this one exercises restraint, blurring the rough edges with refined chimes and mystical strings. The outcome is just as lofty as his previous work, yet more ambient than ever. At times, the album sneaks up on you: It begins with the unassuming “All In,” an electro-gospel instrumental with wafting bells. Then just as suddenly, vocalist Niki Randa’s angelic moans signal the pending arrival of “Getting There,” an outstanding track with hip-hop aspirations. The knock is block-worthy: roll down your windows and blast it out the car, or decrease the volume and let it fill your personal space. It has the same impact either way.
Settled songs like “Until the Colours Come,” “Heave(n),” and “Tiny Tortures” help set the mood for the glossy “Putty Boy Strut” and the tribal “See Thru to U,” featuring neo-soul hippy Erykah Badu. Elsewhere, straightforward pop bangers — “The Nightcaller,” “Only If You Wanna” — eventually give way to the supernatural: “Hunger” takes primitiveness to the brink of discomfort; “Phantasm” eases the anxiety with soft lullabies. Quiet moves in waves. If there was a way to record our deepest levels of unrest, this would be it. But while the sound is undeniably Lotus, it’s not so far away that you can’t reach it. This is headphone music that you dig into, whether you absorb it indirectly or peel the onion to study its vast texture. You don’t have to be high to appreciate these sounds, though the producer probably wouldn’t mind.
So Lotus has come a long way since 2006. His Brainfeeder label — with its unusual crop of producers — is arguably one of the best imprints around. After the release of Cosmogramma, the producer scoffed at the Grammy awards, calling the process “a joke” once his record was snubbed in the Best Electronic/Dance category. Most recently, he openly shrugged at the latest Beach House album. It was “cool,” he said, but it sounded like everything else. “just makes me wonder how so many bands are totally fine with sounding exactly like another band,” he tweeted. Lotus sounds like no one else. In an instant, he can craft controlled instrumentals for rapper Earl Sweatshirt, jazz standout Jose James and electro-pop vocalist Muhsinah, then let loose his own celestial blend with controlled autonomy. Lotus does what he wants in any world. He’s just visiting Earth for the time being.
Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes is out now via Warp. You can watch his show live online tonight via NPR.